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Italy’s left warns of authoritarianism

June 20, 2008

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: June 20 2008

Italy under Silvio Berlusconi is moving towards authoritarianism, a veteran voice of the left has declared, as the opposition broke off talks on constitutional reform with the centre-right government on Friday.

The “honeymoon” period that the prime minister has enjoyed since his election victory in April appears to be over, with Mr Berlusconi accused of fixing a law to halt his own corruption trial and initiating a constitutional conflict with Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s president.

Eugenio Scalfari, the 84-year-old founder of La Repubblica, Italy’s main centre-left daily newspaper, accused Mr Berlusconi of using the popular consensus he enjoyed in his first days back in office to try to modify the structures of the state, enhancing the powers of the prime minister at the expense of the judiciary.

“I am convinced that Italy is moving towards authoritarianism,” Mr Scalfari said in an interview in the newspaper’s headquarters in Rome, where his columns are widely respected and seen as a key influence within the new opposition Democratic party.

“What is happening is comparable to what [prime minister and former president Vladimir] Putin is trying to do in Russia,” he added.

The former chief editor said the centre-right government had used a “TV culture” to create a sense of fear over security, then produced the “solution” by announcing the deployment of troops for city crime patrols, although their slim presence would have little impact.

This week, the Senate passed a proposed measure that would take away the judiciary’s constitutional right to prioritise trials by suspending court cases involving alleged crimes committed before mid-2002 and carrying sentences of less than 10 years. Among the trials that would be frozen are Mr Berlusconi’s own, involving accusations that the billionaire media mogul and David Mills, a British lawyer, sought to corrupt a magistrate. Both deny the charges.

Another trial involves police accused of severely beating anti-globalisation demonstrators during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001.

Mr Berlusconi, who also wants immunity for holders of high office, says the moves were necessary to speed up urgent trials and to block “politically motivated” cases against him.

The Berlusconi-Mills trial is due to resume in Milan on July 7, the court confirmed, despite efforts by the prime minister’s lawyers to remove one of the judges.

Mr Scalfari said Mr Napolitano, whose signature is needed on the legislation, had been put in a difficult position. He thought the president would grudgingly sign, but refer the issue to the constitutional court.

Mr Scalfari’s assessment – and criticism of the weak response from the Democrats – have had a galvanising impact. Walter Veltroni, the party leader, announced at a party assembly in Rome on Friday that he would mobilise demonstrations across Italy in the autumn, and confirmed he was breaking off constitutional reform talks with Mr Berlusconi.

Mr Veltroni’s call to the piazza for street protests is risky. His party’s split with former allies among the communists and greens has alienated many supporters.

The centre-right, meanwhile, has sought to take the sting out of possible labour unrest by announcing cash handouts for the needy. But analysts say that – like its 2001-06 predecessor – the Berlusconi government risks being diverted from implementing necessary economic reforms through its battles with the judiciary.

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