Thursday, February 22, 2007

what fate comes; with a foreign policy!

Analysis: Rome falls over Afghanistan

BERLIN, Feb. 22 (UPI) --
The Afghan conflict has plunged Italy into its biggest political crisis in recent years, with the main question waging whether Romano Prodi, who resigned from his prime ministerial post Wednesday, can come back to lead a new government.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano Thursday started meeting with political leaders to find out who could lead a new government coalition, and how that coalition would look like.

In office for roughly nine months, Prodi resigned after he came up two votes short of a majority in the Senate for a key foreign policy vote over Afghanistan. Ahead of the vote, Prodi and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema had lobbied for support for their basic foreign policy direction, which included support for the country's Afghanistan mission, where 1,900 Italian soldiers are stationed with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

The country's contribution to ISAF has been a constant source of debate in Italy, with left-wingers' calls to bring the troops home resonating louder as the security situation worsened during the past months. Ahead of the vote, government officials, including D'Alema, had threatened to resign if the key foreign policy goals were rejected.

"Everybody knew that there was a great risk involved," Gianni Bonvicini, director of the Institute of International Affairs, an Italian foreign policy think tank based in Rome, Thursday told United Press International in a telephone interview.

In the Senate, D'Alema did everything to convince the far-left Communist and Green Party officials that the government's policies were anything but a continuation of the course steered by former conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi, one of Washington's most steadfast allies.

D'Alema highlighted Prodi's decision to pull out from Iraq, the multilateral leadership that Italy has accepted for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, and last but not least, the multilateral approach of the Afghanistan mission.

"D'Alema stressed that pulling out from the multilateral Afghanistan mission would just be the unilateral gesture that the left so dislikes about unilateralism by the United States," Bonvicini told UPI.

Nevertheless, two Communist senators refused to vote with their government coalition, mainly because of "ideological reasons," Bonvicini said, citing that Italy's far-left had "never digested the idea of sending troops to fight militarily in another country."

Prodi consulted with President Napolitano after the lost vote, and later gave in to opposition calls to resign.

Some political commentators have said Prodi, who from 1999 to 2004 was president of the European Commission, could come back and lead a new coalition; however, all parties, including the former leader himself, have said such could only happen with a "steadfast majority" for Prodi, which at the moment seems unlikely.

Prodi's support in Italy has diminished recently, also because of his decision to accept the expansion of a controversial U.S. military base in Vicenza, where roughly 100,000 people last weekend protested, saying the Americans were not welcome.

Prodi would likely need to extend to the center parties, a move the extreme left could object to; on the other hand, several centrist politicians do not want to be led by Prodi.

Observers say the resignation has plunged Italy into a huge political crisis. Italy's political scene with the uncertainty over who will lead the government is looking at "a very difficult time ahead," Bonvicini said.

Any new government, whether led by Prodi or someone else, should soon change the electoral law, a remnant from the Berlusconi era that has been the source of much political instability, Bonvicini said.

Berlusconi's electoral law includes a so-called 'majority prize' that awards the winner of the national elections a minimum of 54 percent of the seats in the Lower House of Parliament. The prize is not granted in the Senate, however, which selects candidates regionally. As Prodi won by the smallest margin ever, he had no real majority in the Senate.

As for the country's contribution to Afghanistan, "nothing will change right now," Bonvicini assured.

There is one tricky fact though: The parliament was due to vote on the mission's finances in about two weeks. That decision has now been put on hold, and so has the country's foreign policy course.

"We can provisionally finance the mission, so that's not a huge problem," Bonvicini said. "But there comes a time when someone must clarify Italy's financial and political engagement in Afghanistan."