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Italy: Berlusconi Losing Momentum After Strike

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Italian government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is already controversial because of its abrasive approach to the European Union. Now, following this week's massively supported general strike in Italy, the perception is growing that it is also faltering in its policies at home.

Prague, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Running a country like Italy was never going to be easy. Italians are a volatile people with easily aroused political passions. Then there's the half-century history of unstable governments and -- lurking in the background -- there's the threat of renewed domestic terrorism.

Just how hard it is to be an effective leader under such conditions is probably one of the thoughts crossing the mind of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at present.

This week's general strike, involving up to 14 million workers according to labor-union estimates, appears to have dented the center-right government's thrust for economic reforms. Using a conciliatory tone, Berlusconi has expressed a willingness to return to negotiations with the unions. But he said things can't just be left "as they are," and that reform is still needed.

At stake is a relatively modest change to the labor laws that would allow limited categories of workers to be dismissed more easily. But the unions fear this is only the tip of the iceberg, and that Italy's long-standing system of labor protection is at risk.

The powerful labor movement was confident even as the strike got under way. Giacomo Barbieri, a spokesman for the Italian Labor Confederation, said in Rome: "We are sure of the great success of our strike. We feel that it will be the biggest general strike perhaps in the history of our country. We had very strong participation in the meeting that we called to prepare the strike, and also new and nontraditional workers will join the strike today for the first time."

To call it the biggest stoppage in Italian history would be an exaggeration, but analysts say it was at any rate the largest labor protest in 20 years. Political analyst Andrea Bonanni says the government has received a blow to its hopes for streamlining the economy. Bonanni, who is the Brussels correspondent for the leading Italian newspaper "Corriere della Sera," said: "On the specific issue, which is the regulation of jobs, [Berlusconi has been hit] for sure. He says he wants to negotiate with the unions, so on this point, probably, he realizes that a wall-to-wall policy is not so productive."

Another leading analyst, the professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome, James Waltson, said the government's "loss of face" over the general strike comes at a time when Berlusconi's key constituency -- the business community -- is growing increasingly disillusioned about unfulfilled election promises, such as cutting taxes.

"What is significant is that the employers' association, various employers' associations, are very disappointed about what he has not done. He spoke to their meeting in Parma on Saturday. He spoke for an hour or so, and at the end he received -- they timed it -- just over a minute's applause, and [even] that tailed off very rapidly," Waltson said.

"Corriere della Sera" correspondent Bonanni also noted the growing concern in entrepreneurial and financial circles, which are Berlusconi's core supporters.

"As the public deficit is mounting, they are afraid that he will not be able to obtain the money in order to provide the tax cut which he promised during the election campaign," Bonanni said.

So what he has done is beginning to haunt him already. But what Berlusconi has achieved in his 10 months in office is also part of the problem. That's because he has carried through measures seen as favoring his own interests.

He has, for instance, scaled down the crime of false accounting -- an offense that he is accused of as part of his myriad media business interests. Among other things, he has also made it harder to introduce foreign evidence into court cases -- likewise a move that benefits his own circumstances, as he is involved in a case where foreign evidence is being used.

Despite the problems building up, neither analyst sees any likelihood that the Berlusconi government will fall in the foreseeable future. The ruling coalition appears to be rock solid, so that at least Berlusconi is not beset by the instability in parliament that has plagued every Italian government since World War II.

"I would hardly say that even if 13 million people were on strike the day before yesterday that Berlusconi has been politically diminished, because he still has a very strong majority in the parliament," Bonanni said.

Local elections are coming up next month, and the performance of the rightist parties in those elections could give an indication of how the public is now tending to view the national government.

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