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Italy is a land of many paradoxes: It is an ancient nation, but a young state. Its varied regions and city- states, many with a long independent history, were not united until 1870. Despite numerous post-World War II changes of government, the country's political system was, until recently, actually quite stable. But an economic gulf remains between a north more prosperous than Britain and a south as poor as anywhere in Western Europe.

Italy's stability - presided over by musical-chairs government reshuffles of the now-defunct Christian Democrats, and later, other parties - began to crumble in 1992. At that time voters began to understand the depth of corruption on the part of the Christian Democrats and other politicians; corruption that often included high-level collusion with a Mafia bent on becoming a law unto itself. (Indeed organized crime in the south goes a long way toward explaining that region's lack of economic progress.)

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The crumbling of the old order has led Italians in several different directions. Never very loyal to the central state, they began a return to regional politics, especially in the north. A pronounced swing to the right resulted in the election of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi in 1994, but his government collapsed in a few short months following coalition disputes with Umberto Bossi's Northern League. After more than a year of a neutral caretaker government, Italians in April turned to the Olive Tree Coalition of Romano Prodi, bringing the left, including former and current Communists, into power for the first time since the war.

One of Prime Minister Prodi's primary tasks will be to hold the nation together. The Northern League's on-again, off-again separatism is on again, with Mr. Bossi pushing a Czech/Slovak-style split of Italy's northern and southern regions. Prodi's response is federalism; devolving more power to Italy's provinces after the German model.

Division of Italy into two nations is in the interest neither of Italians nor their NATO and European Union partners. Unlike the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Italy (apart from Tyrol) is not inhabited by two distinct ethnic groups. Northern and southern Italians are no more different from each other than an Englishman from Canterbury and one from Newcastle.

Federalism, on the other hand, could well be the answer to combating the centrifugal forces that would tear Italy apart. But even that can work only if Italians north and south agree that a united Italy is worth the sacrifice. Prodi's task will be to convince them that it is.

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