Prodi wins reprieve but Italy doubts stability

ROME (Reuters) - Romano Prodi’s victory in a confidence vote has given his center-left government a lease of life but Italy appeared unconvinced on Thursday he can remain prime minister long enough to deliver promised reforms.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi adjusts his glasses during a parliamentary session in Rome March 1, 2007. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Prodi, who quit after a leftist revolt on foreign policy, scared wayward allies into backing him in the Senate on Wednesday with the prospect of conservative Silvio Berlusconi returning to power after just nine months out of government.

Despite the allies’ promise of an internal truce, coalition troubles were spotted on the horizon even before the formalities end with an easy confidence vote in the lower house on Friday.

“With yesterday’s vote the government crisis is over,” said leftist union leader Guglielmo Epifani, readying for a fight over pensions. “We await talks but we have no illusions that, if it was no walk in the park anyway, it now looks very uphill.”

The nine-party coalition has fought almost non-stop since coming to power in May with the slimmest election margin in post-war history, on anything from troops in Afghanistan and a U.S. military base at Vicenza to spending cuts and gay rights.

Some leftists are threatening revolt when parliament this month debates funding to keep NATO peacekeepers in Afghanistan. Prodi says Italy must respect its overseas commitments.


Another battle looms over a government bill granting rights to gay and unwed couples. Some coalition Catholics will object, fearing it could clear the way for gay marriages.

Leftists will come under union pressure to oppose reforms of a pension system which the European Union says a country with such an aging population cannot afford.

“Prodi will always have trouble because the votes are almost equal,” said 67-year-old Rome pensioner Piero Noce. “He’ll have difficulty with pensions, health, Vicenza and peace missions.”

Gigi Roveda, a 58-year-old from Milan, said Prodi relied too much in parliament on a handful of unelected life senators who boosted his tiny elected majority in the confidence vote.

“They don’t have a real majority, they rely on life senators who don’t represent the political will of the people,” he said.

Prodi promised to make it his “absolute priority” to reform an electoral system stacked against strong majorities which is blamed for the political instability that has plagued Italy for decades.

New evidence of an improved underlying budget deficit augurs well for Prodi’s promise to bring the shortfall within EU guidelines this year. But he has done that partly with taxes that angered small business.

“With Berlusconi we couldn’t make it to the end of the month, but with Prodi’s new taxes we can’t even make it through a fortnight,” said Roveda, at his family’s jewelry shop.

Additional reporting by Nathalie Higgins