Italy's Prodi continues following vote


ROME -- Romano Prodi is back as Italian premier just days after resigning following a humiliating Senate vote, culling a few key votes from the opposition to pull together a coalition stronger and wider-ranging than the one he headed for the previous nine months.

Billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, Prodi's chief political rival, scoffed at the new government, calling it "warmed-up minestrone" adding that despite his new mandate another Prodi government would mean that, for Italians, "The agony will continue."

But not everyone agreed: Prodi's coalition was bolstered by several high-profile defections from the Berlusconi camp, including Marco Follini, Berlusconi's last deputy prime minister. Follini said he switched in order to make the government more stable and because his good will was abused under Berlusconi.

"In my career I have suffered more blows than I have dealt," a laconic Follini said upon announcing his decision.

Berlusconi and several of his allies over the weekend called for new elections to be held, noting that Berlusconi's approval levels now rest above 50% -- much higher than when he was in office -- while Prodi's is under 40% in some polls. But that development does not seem to be in the cards, at least for now.

Another noteworthy development over the weekend involved the re-inclusion of Prodi's media reform package in his plan for government.

Left out at first, the plan includes several significant steps that would introduce more competition into the television sector currently dominated by Berlusconi's Mediaset and state broadcaster RAI. The plan includes capping Mediaset's share of the total television advertising market to 45% -- below its current share of the market -- and forcing both Mediaset and RAI to switch one network to less profitable digital technologies by 2009.

Berlusconi, one of the 40 richest people in the world according to Forbes magazine, also backed away from January plans that indicated he would inch away from politics and concentrate on his massive media empire. On Jan. 29, Berlusconi appointed Gianfranco Fini as his political successor, but over the weekend he made it clear that he -- Berlusconi -- was still the main opposition figure.

"Right now, there is no successor in sight and my age is no obstacle," said the 70-year-old Berlusconi, who was fitted for a pacemaker earlier this month and who had a hair transplant and cosmetic surgery in 2004. "I look great and I feel great."