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Berlusconi’s new party urges reform

March 29, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 29 2009

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire prime minister, declared that his new party would outlive its founders when he spoke at its opening congress on Sunday, but the carefully orchestrated celebrations demonstrated that the cult of personality remains as strong as ever.

To chants of “Silvio, Silvio” from 6,000 delegates and the chorus of the party anthem – “Thank goodness that Silvio is there!” – the media mogul closed a three-day congress in Rome of the new People of Liberty with assurances that Italy would emerge stronger from the global economic crisis.

Mr Berlusconi, 72, reiterated his calls for institutional reforms that would diminish the authority of parliament and enhance the powers of the executive.

“The constitution must be enriched and revitalised … The powers of the prime minister are almost non-existent … The country needs to be governed,” Mr Berlusconi said to applause. He said that he would seek the support of the centre-left opposition in changing the constitution but would go alone if it did not co-operate.

The new party is a merger of Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which first brought him to power in 1994, and the rightwing National Alliance led by Gianfranco Fini, who has publicly challenged Mr Berlusconi’s views on parliament.

Eleven small parties have also joined, including the rightwing faction led by Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of the late dictator.

As the single largest party in parliament, the People of Liberty still depends on the support of the rightwing Northern League for its majority in the senate. However, with the centre-left opposition weak, divided and wracked by corruption scandals, only the leftwing trade unions could put up a significant challenge to Mr Berlusconi’s aspirations.

Daniele Capezzone, member of parliament and spokesman of the defunct Forza Italia, said the founding of the new party marked the apogée of Mr Berlusconi’s 15 years in politics. He described it as a historic moment as Italy started moving towards a two-party system to become a “normal country”.

Geoff Andrews, a political scientist and author of Not a Normal Country, described the process as flawed “because of the weight of Italian history, the specificity of its political traditions – in this case the legacy of fascism – and the tradition of strong leaders”.

The new party also clearly demonstrated “positioning for the post-Berlusconi leader of the right”, he added.

Opposition critics, including the centre-left daily Repubblica, described the event as the “ritual of glorification”.

Stefano Folli, writing in the mainstream Il Sole 24 Ore business daily, spoke of the “hegemony of Berlusconi’s politics” and a dependency on charisma that has created divisions of adulation and hate unparalleled in postwar Italy.

In spite of Mr Berlusconi’s claim that the People of Liberty would survive for decades and outlive its founders, questions remain over its leadership structure. There is no party deputy. Beneath Mr Berlusconi there is a triumvirate of handpicked officials – two from Forza Italia and one from the National Alliance – and a 120-member directorate that has yet to be formed.

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