Berlusconi Forms Italy's 60th Government

Silvio Berlusconi (search) was sworn in as premier of the nation's 60th government in as many years Saturday, after naming a team of ministers that closely resembles the one he led until stepping down days earlier during a power struggle with allies.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (search) shook hands with Berlusconi before Cabinet ministers were sworn in. Conservative Berlusconi is keeping most ministers in their old jobs, including Gianfranco Fini, head of the National Alliance party, who remains foreign minister and deputy premier.

Berlusconi formed his new Cabinet in an attempt to avoid early elections. With the reconstituted government — a technique used by past Italian premiers to strengthen faltering coalitions — Berlusconi aims to improve his sagging popularity and remain in power until the next election, scheduled for mid-2006.

His choices must now be confirmed in both houses of parliament, where he will face a confirmation vote next week.

Defense Minister Antonio Martino, who oversees Italy's deployment of 3,000 troops to Iraq, remains in his post. Giulio Tremonti, a former economics minister forced out last year by coalition feuding, returns as a deputy premier.

Berlusconi announced the formation of a new ministry — Development and Territorial Cohesion (search) — under Gianfranco Micciche, the former deputy minister of economy. Micciche, who is from Sicily, will oversee efforts to develop poorer areas in southern Italy — a concession by Berlusconi to Fini's party, the largest in his coalition of four major parties.

Berlusconi received the mandate to form a new government during a meeting Friday with Ciampi, two days after quitting amid a power struggle with his coalition allies. A small party — the Union of Christian Democrats — pulled its ministers out of the Cabinet last week, putting pressure on Berlusconi to revamp his leadership in an attempt to recover lost popularity.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul who likes to portray himself as a new-style politician, had originally resisted pressure to form a new government, dismissing it as an old trick of Italian politics.

But with his coalition on the verge of collapse after Fini's party also threatened to withdraw its ministers, Berlusconi made the concession, an attempt to avoid early elections that his center-right coalition could have lost.

With Italians concerned about the economy and largely opposed to Italy's involvement in Iraq, polls have suggested that the center-left bloc would win if elections were held now.

The new Cabinet is Italy's 60th government since the republic's founding in 1946. Italian media are calling it "Berlusconi bis" — Berlusconi part 2. The center-left opposition says Berlusconi's changes are merely cosmetic.

"It's just a propaganda operation," said Sergio D'Antoni (search), a left-wing opposition leader. "This is the result of a fake government crisis and an equally fake solution."

Romano Prodi, the main opposition politician, expressed distaste for the nomination of Tremonti, saying that as economy minister "he was the one mainly responsible for the negative tendency of the Italian economy."

The political crisis comes after Berlusconi's conservative coalition suffered an embarrassing defeat in regional elections this month, where it lost 12 out the 14 regions at stake.

Voters have punished the premier mainly because of Italy's sluggish economy, which grew by 1.2 percent last year compared with an average 2 percent in the 12-nation euro zone.

Berlusconi also faces strong popular opposition to his decision to send 3,000 troops to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion. Pressure to pull out the troops mounted after the March 4 killing in Baghdad of an Italian intelligence agent who was escorting a released hostage. The agent was shot by U.S. troops who mistakenly fired on his vehicle.