Government-formation talks start on uphill track

Napolitano set to meet big party leaders on Thursday

Government-formation talks start on uphill track

(By Paul Virgo) Rome, March 20 - Italian President Giorgio Napolitano began two days of talks with party leaders about the formation of a new government on Wednesday, but there were no signs of a breakthrough that would end the nation's political gridlock. The first day of talks was devoted to the smaller parties in parliament, including outgoing Premier Mario Monti's Civic Choice (Scelta Civica) party, which did less well than expected in last month's inconclusive vote. On Thursday the head of state will meet centre-left head Pier Luigi Bersani, ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi and 5-Star Movement (M5S) leader Beppe Grillo, whose anti-establishment group holds the balance of power in parliament after capturing a huge protest vote. Bersani, whose alliance came first in the election but failed to win a working majority in the Senate, has said he will ask Napolitano to give him the mandate to form a new government. But at the moment he appears unlikely to be able to present an administration capable of winning a confidence vote in the Senate. Bersani has ruled out forming a grand coalition with Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party and the ex-premier's centre-right alliance, which came a close second last month. He is trying to reach out to the M5S, even though Grillo considers Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) part of a corrupt, malfunctioning system that he wants to revolutionise and has responded to the overtures with insults. These have included Grillo describing Bersani as a "dead man talking". The three sides were sticking to the their positions on Wednesday. Berlusconi said he would tell Napolitano Italy needed a government composed of a PD-PdL grand coalition, even though Bersani has ruled this out. "Only a stable, authoritative government of national concord springing from a collaboration between the PdL and the PD can carry out interventions that are in the country's interest," Berlusconi told one of his Mediaset TV channels. The PD, meanwhile, said Bersani is preparing to present Napolitano with an eight-point platform that he hopes may win over the M5S as it reflects many of the movement's policies. These include cuts to the number of parliamentarians and other measures to reduce the cost of politics, the recognition of same-sex unions and the introduction of a universal system of unemployment benefits. But the M5S, which has said it will not vote confidence in an administration led by an established party, reiterated that its solution is for the other groups to give it the reins of power. "We will propose (to Napolitano) what we always have, a 5-Star government," said the M5S's Senate whip Vito Crimi. An indication of how far the PD and the M5S are came after the centre-left-nominated Speakers of the House and the Senate, Pietro Grasso and Laura Boldrini, said they would take a 30% salary cut after being elected into Italy's third- and second-highest institutional positions at the weekend. Rather than welcoming the move, Grillo complained the new speakers were not doing enough. "Boldrini, Grasso, take the responsibility that your roles impose, ask for the parliamentarians' salaries to be halved and (for the parties) to renounce their electoral expenses," comedian-turned-politician Grillo said via Facebook. Monti's Civic Choice party said it was in favour of a broad coalition government of the "main political parties" after talks with Napolitano. In a statement, the party added that the new government should continue with the structural economic reforms and policies of fiscal consolidation adopted by Monti's emergency technocrat administration. This administration came to power in November 2011 when Berlusconi was forced to resign as premier with Italy's debt crisis threatening to spiral out of control. The wording of the statement suggested Monti's party does not envisage the M5S being part of this coalition.

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