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Posted on Fri, Mar. 02, 2007
Prodi wins reprieve in Italy
ROME - Romano Prodi's center-left government has a new lease on life. But if the past nine months are any indication, his allies will not make it easy for him.
Since taking power in May, his fractious coalition has bickered over everything from Italy's international commitments to rights for unmarried couples.
Last week Prodi resigned after his allies failed to support him in a Senate vote on foreign policy, including the country's military presence in Afghanistan.
But the Italian president asked the premier to stay on and test his majority in votes of confidence in parliament. If a government loses a vote of confidence it must resign.
Prodi faced his toughest test earlier this week when he survived a vote of confidence in the Senate, which is almost evenly split between the center-left and the conservative opposition.
He faces another vote in the Chamber of Deputies on Friday but it was expected to be little more than a formality as his allies have a comfortable majority in the lower house.
Although the government's immediate survival appeared guaranteed, its long-term stability is fraught with obstacles. Skepticism remains over what Prodi can accomplish with a coalition that stretches from Communists to Christian Democrats and commands only a slim parliamentary majority.
"Do we need a government that must watch its back constantly, that cannot deal with issues unless it tiringly debates them and often reaches a compromise that is the lowest common denominator among various positions?" said Sergio Romano, a leading political commentor.
Several divisive issues await the government.
A Cabinet plan to legalize unmarried couples, including homosexual ones, appears to have been sacrifed to safeguard government stability. The government-proposed legislation has irked the Vatican and angered Catholic politicians in the bloc.
Prodi dropped mention of the proposal in a 12-point plan that serves as the new government platform - an apparent nod to Catholic politicians courted by the center-left to broaden the coalition. The premier did make a brief mention of the issue in a Senate speech, but only to say it was now up to parliament to decide on the matter.
Gay right activists have planned a demonstration next week in Rome to push for the legislation, and the protest is likely to draw coalition officials and foment the controversy.
Afghanistan, where Italy has 1,800 troops, remains a touchy issue. Some radical leftist senators maintain their opposition to the military deployment and say they will vote against an upcoming measure to refinance the mission there. Prodi may have to rely on help from Berlusconi, who has said his center-right forces would back the measure.
A reform of Italy's onerous pension system and the planned construction of a high-speed train connecting Turin and Lyon, France, are also potentially divisive issues.
Moody's Investors Service predicted Prodi's survival, but said this week that the government's efforts for reform would be compromised.
On a brighter note for Prodi, the government is expected to be able to continue opening up sectors of the economy to more competition. Previous rounds of liberalizations were pushed through despite fierce opposition from targeted categories, even though in some cases they were watered down.
Prodi credited his government's action for helping the country's slow recovery from a zero-growth economy.
"Our strategy is bearing the fruit we had hoped for," Prodi told lawmakers shortly before Friday's vote of confidence. "We are not going to stop. This is the right path."
Italy's economy expanded last year at its fastest pace since 2000, according to government statistics released Thursday. Gross domestic product rose 1.9 percent in 2006, compared with just 0.1 percent the previous year - but still below the euro-zone average of 2.7 percent.