May 9, 2008 3:00 am

Old allies join Berlusconi in Italy's cabinet

Silvio Berlusconi, billionaire entrepreneur and head of the centre-right People of Freedom coalition, was sworn in yesterday as head of Italy's 62nd post-war government, bringing with him long-time allies and a few new faces.

There were no big surprises when the 71-year-old media mogul, became prime minister for a third time following his decisive election victory last month, presented his list of 21 ministers to President Giorgio Napolitano for approval on Wednesday night.

Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia dominates the cabinet with 12 positions, while his rightwing allies, the Northern League and National Alliance, take four posts each.

Mr Napolitano was reported to have been unhappy with the choice of the 38-year-old and relatively inexperienced Angelino Alfano, a close Berlusconi ally from Sicily, for the demanding and often crisis-prone position of justice minister.

Only four women were among the 21, including Mara Carfagna, a 32-year-old former beauty queen and television soubrette who was named minister of equal opportunities, and 31-year-old Giorgia Meloni, appointed youth minister.

Mr Berlusconi cut a handful of "ministers without portfolio" but also created one new position, appointing the Northern League's Roberto Calderoli as "minister of simplification" with a mandate to streamline laws and bureaucracy.

An influential Libyan association warned this week of "catastrophic repercussions" to bilateral relations if Mr Calderoli, who follows his party's fiercely xenophobic line, was included in the government.

The issue will fall to Franco Frattini, who leaves Brussels as European justice commissioner for another stint as foreign minister. Another old face from the second Berlusconi administration (2001 to 2006) is Giulio Tremonti, who returns as finance minister with an even stronger reputation as an anti-globalist and Eurosceptic.

Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League who brought down the first, short-lived Berlusconi government in 1994, is reappointed as minister for reforms and federalism. The League's Roberto Maroni also takes the post of minister of interior, which deals with immigration.

The issue of fiscal federalism - how to divide tax income between the wealthier north and the poverty-ridden south - is likely to become one of the most contentious issues within the coalition.

Mr Berlusconi's coalition is more compact than his previous administration following the departure of the centrist Catholic UDC. His last government became the first since the second world war to survive a full five-year term.

Should Mr Berlusconi, who is reported to covet the presidency, decide not to serve a full term as prime minister then a possible successor is Gianni Letta, a 73-year-old lawyer. Mr Letta takes the important post of cabinet undersecretary.

Top ministers

Prime ministerSilvio Berlusconi ForeignFranco Frattini InteriorRoberto Maroni JusticeAngelino Alfano EconomyGiulio Tremonti DefenceIgnazio La Russa Economic development (industry)Claudio Scajola AgricultureLuca Zaia EducationMaria Stella Gelmini EnvironmentStefania Prestigiacomo InfrastructureAltero Matteoli

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