Berlusconi warns against crisis

AFP, Monday 13 Dec 2010

On the eve of a confidence vote, Berlusconi snaps back calling attempts to oust him "political folly", warning that a government collapse coupled with economic uncertainty could throw the country into turmoil

Berlusconi in Senate
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sits at the Senate in Rome 13 December 2010. Berlusconi faces confidence votes in parliament on Tuesday that could drive him from office or cement his reputation as one of the great survivors of Italian politics. (Reuters)

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday proposed a "legislative pact" with centre-right opposition political forces to back his government on the eve of a crucial confidence vote.

Berlusconi warned that ousting him would be "political folly". "I ask you... to reflect on the political folly that opening a crisis without visible and credible solutions would be today," Berlusconi said in a speech to the Senate, or upper house of parliament.

"Our country is being shaken by serious tensions that concern the heart of the economic system -- the financial credibility of the state," he said. Italy's financial stability "depends on the confidence vote," he said.

Berlusconi also offered to widen his ruling coalition to include the opposition Union of the Centre (UDC) party and members of his rival Gianfranco Fini's Future and Freedom for Italy (FLI) political movement. "I want to reconstitute the alliance of all the moderate forces that were the origin of our political engagement," Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi's fiercest conservative rival and centrist parties announced a joint no-confidence motion against him early this month, escalating a political crisis that could sink the government.   Fini, who is also the Lower House Speaker, demanded that Berlusconi resign to allow the formation of "a solid and secure government, capable of tackling the economic and social crisis".

The opposition alliance statement piled pressure on Berlusconi, who faces a separate no-confidence vote on Tuesday which could force him to resign and has been weakened by a series of scandals and anaemic economic growth after a painful recession.

The 14 December vote was put forward by the Democratic Party, the largest in the opposition.

No date was set for the new no-confidence vote, which highlighted the emergence of an alliance of conservative and centrist forces united against him, dubbed the "Third Way" by Italian media.

The alliance, which can count on more than 80 lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, could defeat Berlusconi if it voted as a bloc with the centre-left opposition against him.

Speaking on the sidelines of an international summit in Kazakhstan, Berlusconi called his rivals "irresponsible".

A government collapse would raise the prospect of early elections next spring, and Berlusconi has said the only alternative to him is snap polls.

But the political crisis is complicated by the euro zone debt turmoil, with some commentators warning a protracted period of uncertainty is the last thing the country needs now.

Italy has so far largely escaped the worst of the crisis that engulfed Greece and Ireland, despite having one of the 16-nation bloc's highest debts.

But with the crisis spreading fast, and the premium investors demand to hold Italian bonds instead of German benchmark debt rising to a new euro-lifetime high this week, Italy does no longer look quite so safe.

Fini and his centrist allies said in their statement early polls would be "unhelpful and damaging", indicating that, if the government fell, President Giorgio Napolitano should appoint an interim executive to run business until elections. Berlusconi's allies retorted that the worst scenario would be an ineffective executive limping along until the next scheduled polls in 2013.

Berlusconi has been under threat since July when he expelled his ambitious former ally Fini and his supporters from the ruling People of Freedom party (PDL), cementing a break that has cost him a safe parliamentary majority.

In the past few days, the 74-year old prime minister has been further undermined by cables made public by WikiLeaks, in which US diplomats described him as "feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader".

The cables also alleged he was exhausted by "partying hard" and voiced concerns over his close ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

However, the combative prime minister has repeatedly said he is confident he will win the 14 December vote, and political commentators have reported divisions within Fini's camp on whether to go all the way and bring him down.

Most opinion polls say Berlusconi would likely win an early election but may not get a majority in the Senate, making it extremely difficult to govern effectively.

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