Last updated: March 29, 2013 7:25 pm

Italy’s political talks enter critical stage

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Silvio Berlusconi©AFP

With calls for a new government ringing in their ears from employers, trade unions, the Church and the media, negotiations among Italy’s wrangling politicians entered a critical stage on Friday, more than a month after elections returned a divided parliament.

Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, held talks with leaders of the main political parties into the evening, hoping to end the impasse before financial markets reopen next Tuesday after the Easter break.

A glimmer of a possible breakthrough was offered late in the day when Enrico Letta, deputy leader of the centre-left Democrats, seemed to soften his party’s opposition to a grand coalition proposed by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right People of Liberty.

A broad coalition was “not ideal”, Mr Letta said, noting the “bitter differences” between the two main parties. But significantly Mr Letta did not appear to rule out the possibility and he said the Democrats would support Mr Napolitano’s eventual decision.

Mr Napolitano, who has the constitutional powers to nominate a prime minister and swear in a government, made no statement after the day of talks. Further negotiations were expected to continue over the weekend.

Earlier Mr Berlusconi said his position had not changed, reiterating his call for a coalition government with his rivals and suggesting he would accept Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democrats, as prime minister. Mr Bersani was unexpectedly absent from the negotiations yesterday, handing over to Mr Letta instead.

After campaigning last month on a populist tax-cutting and anti-German platform, the 76-year-old billionaire media mogul is now presenting himself as the statesman ready to make a deal – but confident that the Democrats will continue to reject his offer.

Mr Berlusconi closed the door on the main option being considered by Mr Napolitano, which would be to nominate a prime minister from outside parliament to lead what in effect would be a second technocrat cabinet.

Mr Berlusconi described Mario Monti’s technocrat government that replaced him in late 2011 as a “tragic experience” and insisted that elected politicians take over.

Then it was the turn of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement whose parliamentary leaders, as expected, ruled out supporting any government other than their own. Having stunned the main parties by taking a quarter of the vote last month, the movement led by comic-activist Beppe Grillo holds the balance of power in the divided senate.

Mr Bersani had informed the head of state on Thursday evening that he had failed in a week of consultations to gain the numbers he needed to guarantee a viable majority in the senate. The Democrats and their leftwing allies narrowly won a majority in the lower house last month but need to win votes of confidence in both chambers in order to govern.

“Enough games,” Italy’s main business daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, declared in a banner headline. A front-page editorial appealed to the parties to agree on a government to tackle Italy’s worsening economic crisis, listing youth unemployment at more than 38 per cent, “suffocating taxes” and pro-capita incomes falling back to the levels of 1997.

“In defending their individual interests, the ship is sinking,” interjected Monsignor Mariano Crociata, a senior Roman Catholic cleric. “A country taken hostage,” lamented Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper.

Should Mr Napolitano fail to resolve the gridlock then the constitution provides for an extension of Mr Monti’s mandate as caretaker prime minister until elections can be held. Late June or early July would be the earliest dates possible.

Latest opinion polls indicate that Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right has overtaken the centre-left, while the Five Star Movement has lost some ground. The outcome, however, could be another hung parliament.

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