The political season had hardly started before the knives were out and the fighting began. It started with a bang when the leader of the Democratici di Sinistra (DS), Piero Fassino, accused the prime ministers office of orchestrating a libel campaign against him. He promptly found Silvio Berlusconi himself threatening to sue for libel. The dispute is about the so-called Telekom Serbia affair, which is going to run and run. In 1997, when Fassino was a government minister, Telecom Italia bought a 29 per cent share of Telekom Serbia. Early in 2001, stories surfaced that there had been massive kickbacks and that the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic had pocketed a percentage.

A judicial enquiry opened in Turin, and later a special parliamentary commission was set up. Allegations have been flying that senior ministers at the time were involved, and since the names include Romano Prodi (then prime minister, now president of the European Commission), Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (then economics minister, now president), Lamberto Dini (then foreign minister) and Fassino (then deputy foreign minister), they could affect future elections.

The Berlusconi-owned newspaper Il Giornale and the prime ministers spokesman Sandro Bondi have been hammering the story for months, provoking Fassinos outburst, but the prime minister himself has been very discreet. Hence his threat to sue after Fassino dubbed him the puppetmaster.

The Telekom Serbia spat has created much heat and so far little light, but will never be far from the headlines until the next elections or until a definitive verdict from both judicial and parliamentary procedures is handed down.

The more regular political season has two main themes. On one side there is the issue of institutional reform. The prime minister commissioned four wise men to draw up proposals, which follow previous attempts to strengthen the executive; they would like to see a more powerful prime minister, very close to being directly elected and able to dissolve parliament (at the moment this is the presidents prerogative). The intention is to enable the prime minister to keep rebellious coalition partners under control by being able to threaten them with new elections.

The president of the republic would in theory lose some of his powers, while at the same time having more responsibility as guarantor of the constitution.

As with the bicameral commissions proposals five years ago, parliament would be smaller and the senate would represent the regions and have greatly reduced powers on non-regional legislation. The 20 regions would take on full powers over health, schooling and local police. Finally, the composition of the constitutional court would be altered.

These would all be major changes, and first of all the government coalition parties, preferably along with the opposition, have to discuss the proposals and agree on them. Constitutional amendments have to be passed twice by both houses of parliament with a six-month gap between the two votes. With two and a half years left before the next elections, it is highly unlikely that even one of the reforms will get through.

The other issue is that of the tough social reforms, above all on pensions, promised in the 2001 manifesto of Berlusconis centre-right coalition, the Casa della Libert. Everyone, including all parties of both government and opposition, agrees that something has to be done, but not surprisingly, even within the government the only thing they can all accept is where not to cut pension costs. So watch this space for fireworks within the ruling coalition, as well as from the opposition, and for strong words and actions from the unions.

Pension reforms may not be the only issue to provoke demonstrations this autumn, as the Italian presidency of the European Union brings its own trials to long-suffering Romans. From the beginning of next month until the end of the year there will be a series of conferences that will bring EU leaders here.

Berlusconi had hoped that the new European Constitution would be signed in Rome during his presidency, but it wont, as there are still some loose ends to be tied up. However, he has been assured that whenever members do reach agreement, the ceremony will be held here. In the meantime there will be a flurry of diplomatic activity on other international issues such as the Middle East peace process. EU partners are praying that Berlusconi will at least ration his brick-dropping habit from now on, after comparing a German MEP to a Nazi in June and describing Italian judges as mentally disturbed in early September. He is much more pro-Israel than most of the EU, so he provides opportunities for a new approach but also serious risks in the present dangerously unstable situation.

On the home front, the prime ministers personal affairs are never far away; there is a chance that the judge-bribing trial in which he is co-defendant will reach a verdict in the autumn. Even though Berlusconi himself now has immunity, a guilty verdict for the other defendants would be very damaging for him. And the media reform bill that is vital for his television interests is starting its final run through parliament.

It will certainly not be a boring autumn in politics.

More political articles by James Walston and others can be found at http://italpolblog.blogspot.com.

Picture: Piero Fassino, leader of the Democratici di Sinistra.