Right jostles for jobs in new Berlusconi government

ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi put the finishing touches to his cabinet line-up on Wednesday before being sworn in later this week as the head of what could be Italy’s most right-wing government since World War Two.

The media mogul held last-minute negotiations with his main allies from the National Alliance (AN), a party with fascist roots, and the vehemently anti-immigrant Northern League over how many cabinet posts they should receive.

Berlusconi, 71, will recycle ministers from his first two governments in 1994-5 and 2001-6, with Giulio Tremonti’s third stint as economy minister and European Commissioner Franco Frattini back for a second spell as foreign minister.

About half a dozen names mentioned for his new cabinet held similar jobs in the last Berlusconi government, whose main achievement was to make him the first premier in more than 50 years to last a full term.

In economic terms, it oversaw stagnation and rising public debt and economists question Berlusconi’s ability to deal with what the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned could be a sharper slowdown in coming months.

But an unexpectedly strong election victory last month gave Berlusconi’s People of Freedom -- his own Forza Italia merged with the National Alliance -- a strong mandate in parliament.

“This government will once again highlight the overarching power of Mr Berlusconi,” said Franco Pavoncello, politics professor at Rome’s John Cabot University.

The election produced a purge of smaller parties, with only six winning seats versus more than 20 in 2006. One casualty was Berlusconi’s estranged Christian Democrat allies, who gave his last government a centrist counterweight to the right.

Its absence, plus an upset AN win in Rome’s town hall and the League’s surprise gains, are likely to produce the most right-wing government since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.


While Berlusconi should avoid the degree of infighting that brought down Romano Prodi’s coalition in January, he could be vulnerable to sniping from Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, who felled his first government after seven months.

But Pavoncello said Berlusconi still looked set to stamp his authority on what would be “a government of the premiership”.

“At the end of the day he is still the leader and isn’t going to be pushed around. It’s true the League did well, but Berlusconi did so much better,” the professor told Reuters.

Politicians meeting President Giorgio Napolitano prior to the inauguration of the government expected by Saturday at the latest said Berlusconi could present his cabinet later on Wednesday. But horse-trading continued until the last moment.

“Clearly if we want the welfare ministry and don’t get it, we have to be compensated,” said the AN’s Altero Matteoli, a 67-year-old former minister seen getting a powerful new post merging infrastructure, transport and environment portfolios.

“We will settle this today but there are still problems,” said Matteoli.

The League seemed happy enough with its haul of ministries for Bossi to joke after seeing Napolitano: “If all the ministers were from the League, the country’s problems would be solved.”

The 66-year-old Bossi, whose violent rhetoric has not been toned down by a stroke, says he will return as reform minister.

Party colleague Roberto Calderoli, who as a minister in 2006 provoked bloody riots with his T-shirt with a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, will be in charge of slashing red tape as minister of “Legislative Simplification”.