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Italy's Prodi vows reforms for 2007 after drop in popularity

Italy's Prodi vows reforms for 2007 after drop in popularity

Italian Premier Romano Prodi promised sweeping reforms to cut down on bureaucracy, improve competitiveness and spur growth as he outlined an ambitious 2007 agenda Thursday that he hopes will reverse a recent drop in his approval rating.
Speaking at a traditional end-of-the-year news conference, Prodi said his center-left government plans to minimize business red tape to allow companies to be set up in one day, attract foreign investment and unveil a new environmental policy and an energy savings scheme.
Liberalizing sectors of Italy's rigid industry is also high on the agenda of the premier, who said that "no area can be protected from competition."
Prodi, who took over at the helm of a center-left coalition after winning April elections, also suggested he might not seek another term if he completes his mandate, set to expire in 2011.
"I think five years of intense work are enough," said the 67-year-old former EU Commission president. Prodi already served as Italian premier between 1996-1998.
Prodi said a pension reform that has raised the prospect of massive confrontation with Italy's powerful unions and possibly of a strike will not be harsh. The reform is seen as a major test of cohesion for the ruling majority, which is still reeling from having pushed through parliament a controversial 2007 budget.
"The coalition will decide as a whole, with unions and business representatives," the premier said, seeking to play down mounting tensions over the pension issue.
Prodi offered few details about how to implement his agenda, as government officials are set to work them out during a two-day gathering in the southern Italian city of Caserta on Jan. 11-12.
But he insisted that spurring growth in the euro zone's third-largest economy is the main goal of his Cabinet's action in the new year.
"2007 will be the year of the turnaround," he promised.
But with an unwieldy coalition and minimal majority in parliament, Prodi faces a tough challenge. Opposition politicians were quick Thursday to label the government's agenda as unrealistic.
"Lying, lying, lying!" said Roberto Calderoli, a senator with the right-wing populist Northern League party. "The 2007 that Prodi foresees represents a sort of Alice in Wonderland."
Prodi has seen his popularity, and that of his government, decline in recent weeks, according to opinion polls published in the Italian media.
The drop was largely attributed to a tough budget that includes euro35 billion (US$46 billion) in revenue-raising measures and spending cuts.
The budget _ aimed at bringing the Italian deficit to within 3 percent of gross domestic product by next year to meet EU commitments _ has been criticized at home and abroad as relying too heavily on tax hikes rather than tackling public spending.
Prodi has defended the measures as necessary to restart the economy, which grew 0.3 percent in the third quarter of this year, underperforming the euro zone. But even his allies have acknowledged mistakes and miscommunication in how the measures were presented to the public opinion.
Prodi's repeated appeals for profound reforms have yielded little in a country where most people are wary of change. Measures presented by his government this year to liberalize various sectors _ including law firms, taxi companies, pharmacies and bakeries _ were met with fierce protests. Some were eventually watered down.
Adding to the difficulties of the premier, the ruling coalition is a varied group of parties _ ranging from hard-line Communists to Christian Democrats and anti-Vatican secularists _ that do not see eye-to-eye on many issues. An upcoming debate on what legal status to give to unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian ones, is expected to highlight the divisions.
"Tensions within the majority remain a negative factor for Prodi," said Gianfranco Pasquino, a leftist political analyst. He singled out the pension reform as the biggest test to the government's cohesion.
The center-left bloc also has the narrowest of margins in the Senate and has often relied on do-or-die confidence votes as a way to force rebellious senators to close ranks and ensure all senators are present for votes.
Prodi insisted Thursday that his coalition is united when it comes to deciding and voting in parliament. "We won the elections with this majority, and this majority is capable of taking decisions, and will be so in the future," he said.


Updated : 2021-08-03 06:07 GMT+08:00