Berlusconi unveils Italy's new right-wing government

Other News Materials 8 May 2008 01:51 (UTC +04:00)

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi unveiled his new right-wing government on Wednesday the day before his team, including EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini, was to be sworn in.

Berlusconi, 71, also said his old ally Giulio Tremonti would be economy minister, after a spokesman announced that President Giorgio Napolitano had formally called on the incoming conservative prime minister to form a government, the AFP reported.

The announcement, which came immediately after a meeting between Berlusconi and Napolitano, had not been expected before Thursday at the earliest.

Berlusconi has suggested that he is in a hurry to get to work on staggering problems facing Italy, including the plight of its national flag-carrier airline Alitalia, a moribund economy and the longstanding wealth gap between north and south.

The third-time prime minister and his 12-strong team are due to take the oath of office at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Thursday, after Berlusconi's victory in last month's election to replace centre-left leader Romano Prodi.

Tremonti, a former law professor, was Berlusconi's economy minister for most of the media magnate's last term in 2001-2006.

Umberto Bossi, head of the anti-immigration, euro-sceptic Northern League party, will be the reforms minister, a post he has held before under "Il Cavaliere" (The Knight).

Bossi's party, running in coalition with Berlusconi's People of Freedoms, doubled its strength in parliament to eight percent in last month's elections.

Three other Northern League figures were named, Roberto Maroni as interior minister, Luca Zaia in agriculture and Roberto Calderoli to the ministry dealing with simplifying the legislative process.

"There are not many new faces in this government, which is certainly very compact," said political scientist Roberto D'Alimonte.

Despite the cabinet's speedy unveiling, heavy horse-trading preceded it, in particular with the Northern League.

"As you could see with the latest negotiations, Berlusconi is going to have a hard time constantly playing the role of mediator between the Northern League and the (post-fascist) National Alliance, a nationalist party with strong support in the centre and the south," D'Alimonte told AFP.

High on the agenda of the incoming government will be the rubbish crisis in the southern Naples region, which took on new urgency on Tuesday when the European Commission sued Italy before an EU court for dragging its feet on the problem.

Berlusconi has said the issue is his top priority, and he will even hold his first cabinet meeting in Naples.

On the economic front, Italy faces a sharp slowdown to just 0.6 percent growth this year after a rise of 1.5 percent in 2007.

The thorniest issue is the fate of Alitalia, which is haemorrhaging funds and for which Berlusconi has promised an Italian rescue package after European giant Air France-KLM backed out of a takeover bid last month.

The new premier will have to convince Brussels that an emergency 300 million euro (450 million dollar) loan made by the outgoing Prodi government to Alitalia at his behest does not amount to illegal state aid.

Tremonti, 60, is a noted economic nationalist who has already held the post three times under Berlusconi.

He was finance minister in Berlusconi's short-lived 1994 government, and then again from 2001 to 2004, when he courted controversy by abolishing inheritance tax and taking an easy-going attitude to tax evasion.

Frattini, 51, Berlusconi's foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, has a reputation as a cool-headed loyalist with strong legal skills.

He left to become the European Union's commissioner for justice, freedom and security, dealing among other issues with illegal immigration and counter-terrorism.

Under a law passed late last year, the size of the cabinet shrank considerably.

Prodi's government, which lasted two years until it collapsed in January, beat all records with 103 members, including 26 ministers. Berlusconi's 2001-06 team numbered 99.