For years prime minister Silvio Berlusconi seemed *to lead a charmed life. Now his luck is running a trifle thin and previous certainties have begun to shake. In March he was not sure whether to campaign hard for the regional elections in April; he first said he would not, vacillated and then jumped into the ring too little, too late. His presence was enough for the devastating loss to be his responsibility but not enough to claw back some votes.

The coalition parties on the centre-right lost 12 of the 14 regions up for grabs; not only did they lose the regions, they also lost the vote, taking only 45.2 per cent compared to the 51.2 per cent for the parties on the centre-left. If these percentages were to be repeated at the general election next year, Berlusconi and his coalition would be back in opposition with a vengeance.

The losses caused turmoil among the government allies, weakening the prime minister still further; three weeks of negotiating between the coalition partners brought the country close to early elections and then led to a cabinet reshuffle. Berlusconis luck and political skill kept him in the saddle but the price was heavy. At first Marco Follini, leader of the centrist Unione Democratici Cristiani, said that he would withdraw his ministers but still vote with the government. This was to distance himself and his party from the coalition in order to persuade the electorate that they were not responsible for the sorry state of the country and to increase their chances of winning more votes in early elections. In the end, Follini settled for a slightly bigger share of the ministerial pie (stepping down himself to show that he was not out for a personal position).

The right-wing Alleanza Nazionale was also given a few more ministers and in order not to lose the Lega Nord, another ministry was created and its great ally, former finance minister Giulio Tremonti (Forza Italia), was brought back into government as deputy prime minister.

In the end, everyone was reasonably happy or at least happy enough to give the new government a vote of confidence, but no one sees the new administration as more than a stopgap measure which should last a year, but which might not.

Berlusconis personal prestige suffered as he was seen to have been forced into doling out sweeteners to restive allies. Worse, he gave the defeated Lazio regional president, Francesco Storace, a cabinet post; a consolation prize to someone who had not only defied him by running a personal list against Berlusconis diktat but, even worse, had lost.

On top of having to give way to frightened and greedy allies (a dangerous combination), Berlusconi has to face the ongoing stagnation of the economy.

More than any other factor, Italians are worried about their standard of living, now and in the future. Statistics and official predictions are, unsurprisingly, mixed. The government claims that the medicine is working and economic growth will be back soon, while opposition parties and surveys from the European Union and independent think-tanks are far less sanguine about the situation. In any case, behind the figures and doom-laden news of increasing numbers of cheap Chinese textiles being sold in Italy, the Italians can feel the pinch, and Berlusconi knows that the situation will not be relaxed before May next year, whatever happens.

The split with the Pentagon over the killing of intelligence agent Nicola Calipari, by United States soldiers in a friendly fire incident in Iraq in March, risked creating serious rifts with the United States and more resentment from Berlusconis coalition partners, as well as from parties in the opposition. There is anger at the perceived arrogance of the US inquiry into the shooting, and this is bound to increase the number of people who want to see Italian troops withdrawn from Iraq. If the hope expressed by the prime minister in March of bringing the contingent home by September is realised, this will certainly reduce the negative effects of the war and occupation. But it is by no means certain that hell be able to do it, and Fini, as foreign minister, has said that the end of this year or the beginning of the next is now more likely.

In the midst of these major crises, there is the normal business of government to be carried out. The new coalition has promised more resources for the south (Gianfranco Fini and his Alleanza Nazionale party are looking for more votes in the south next year), while the Lega Nord wants the constitutional amendment in favour of more devolution to the regions to be passed in the autumn.

Then there is the referendum in mid-June on the present law to control assisted procreation, which divides the centre-right terribly. This is where Berlusconi can draw some meagre consolation because if anything the referendum divides the centre-left even more. And despite the impressive showing for the centre-left parties in last months elections, they are quite capable of very loud and public rows over policy and personalities.

If they are unable to present a united front, however unlikely it seems today Berlusconi might even have the chance of becoming prime minister again or even president of the republic (as Carlo Azeglio Ciampis mandate finishes at the same time as the general elections are due next year). If not, then he will need more than luck and charm not to be unemployed.

*For students of English.

Below are some idiomatic phrases from the text above to improve your English. Please write (in English or Italian) to editorial@wantedinrome.com if you have any comments, suggestions or difficulties.

To lead a charmed life To be lucky for an unexpectedly long time

Is running a trifle thin - Is beginning to run out

Jumped into the ring Enthusiastically entered into

To claw back To recover with difficulty

Up for grabs Available

With a vengeance In full force

Caused turmoil Created havoc

Bigger share of the ministerial pie More government ministeries

A stopgap measure A temporary solution

A consolation prize A reward to console someone for a failure

Think-tanks Groups dedicated to problem-solving

Feel the pinch Feel the negative effects