Italy dissolves Parliament, election looms

Italy’s president dissolved Parliament on Wednesday and the caretaker government prepared to call a snap election, likely in mid-April, that could mark a return to power of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

In a dramatic sequence of events even by Italian standards, Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned last month after coalition allies defected, attempts to set up an interim government failed and Berlusconi’s calls for an immediate election prevailed.

President Giorgio Napolitano’s bid for cross-party support to reform Italy’s messy voting rules before a fresh election met stiff resistance from Berlusconi.

”It is my regret today to have to call voters back to polling booths without those reforms having been approved,” said Napolitano after he and and Prodi, now caretaker premier, signed a decree dissolving Parliament three years ahead of schedule.

Prodi’s Cabinet was due to meet shortly afterwards to set a date for voting, likely to be April 13 and 14.

Berlusconi, a 71-year-old billionaire who has been prime minister twice before, has a consistent lead in opinion polls, leading Prodi’s fragmented centre left by as much as 16 points.

His rival will be Rome’s 52-year-old mayor Walter Veltroni, who had supported an interim government to change voting rules that were widely blamed for the fragility of Prodi’s government, Italy’s 61st since World War II.

While Parliament has been dissolved about nine times before, only one has been shorter-lived than the 20-month legislature that gave Prodi such a rough ride.

Time for insults

While industry urges politicians to bury their differences and work in the country’s interests at a time when business and consumer confidence has sunk, growth is cooling and inflation is on the rise, parties were already manoeuvring for the election.

Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition was trying to recruit the small Catholic party whose defection sank Prodi, while the hard left, offended at Veltroni’s decision that his Democratic Party would run alone, considered fielding their own candidate.

One priest urged the Roman Catholic country to avoid making the campaign ”a time to insult and humiliate the adversary”.

Father Antonio Rungi told Catholic news agency SIR that the right and left, Catholics and secularists, should ”overcome their perennial conflicts” and campaign constructively.

Many economists say another government elected under current electoral rules will prove just as unstable as Prodi’s, who was undermined by constant bickering between centrist and leftist allies. But another free-spending Berlusconi government could undo Prodi’s work on cutting the budget deficit.

With new data showing inflation hit a decade high in January, consumers’ dwindling buying power will be a central election issue, and politicians will be tempted to promise generous wage increases or tax cuts. – Reuters

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