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Tough Times for Italian Government

January 30, 1999

ROME (AP) _ Premier Massimo D’Alema has survived a political storm in his first 100 days leading Italy’s center-left government, but he still has much to weather.

This spring, Italy faces a referendum on whether to abolish its notoriously shaky electoral system, the election of a new head of state and voting for the European Parliament. All three already have touched off heated disputes.

D’Alema’s troubles began when former Premier Romano Prodi, a political ally, announced he was creating his own list of candidates for the June 13 European Parliament elections. That angered another D’Alema ally, former President Francesco Cossiga, whose followers helped give D’Alema a majority.

Cossiga brought the coalition to the brink of collapse by threatening to pull his ministers out of the majority. Coalition partners reaffirmed their commitment to the new government, and Cossiga backed off.

Still, the European elections remain a touchy subject. In part to placate Cossiga, D’Alema’s government is pushing for a law blocking mayors from seeking seats in the European Parliament _ a move seen as retaliation toward Prodi, whose list of candidates includes Rome’s mayor.

On Saturday, D’Alema told the Prodi camp that its initiative for the European elections was a legitimate one, but cautioned it from going too far and breaking the coalition’s cohesion.

The next sticky issue is the nonbinding referendum on abolishing Italy’s proportional electoral law, blamed for giving tiny parties more weight than they would deserve from their number of votes.

D’Alema’s coalition is split over whether to rush out a law to reform the system and pre-empt the referendum, which Italy’s constitutional court has said must be held by June if no law is passed.

Also, Parliament’s election of a new Italian president between April 28 and May 28 has lawmakers squabbling over whether to re-elect Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to another seven-year term.

Italy can’t have parliamentary elections in the months immediately preceding a presidential election, but the government could call early elections to seek stronger support once a new head of state is chosen.

``Instability is a luxury no country can permit itself,″ D’Alema recently told a group of economists. But he insisted that his coalition ``is neither more quarrelsome nor more divided than others.″

D’Alema formed Italy’s 55th postwar government after Prodi’s 2 1/2-year coalition collapsed due to a defection of a Communist ally. If no early elections are called, Parliament’s term would run out in 2001.

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