Letta warns Italy runs 'fatal risk' with government vote

AFP , Wednesday 2 Oct 2013

Italy runs a risk that could be a fatal risk. Seizing this moment or not depends on us, on a yes or a no, Italian premier says

Italian Premier Enrico Letta delivers his speech at the Senate, in Rome, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta warned lawmakers ahead of a crucial vote of confidence on Wednesday that the country ran a "fatal" risk as Silvio Berlusconi tries to topple his government.

"Italy runs a risk that could be a fatal risk. Seizing this moment or not depends on us, on a yes or a no," Letta said in his address to the Senate.

Letta's survival hinges on rebels within Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom party (PDL), who are considering splitting from the media mogul after he called time on the government and pulled his ministers from the cabinet.

"Italians are crying out that they cannot take any more blood and arena, with politicians who slit each other's throats and then nothing changes," said Letta, who must clinch the vote to defeat Berlusconi and keep his coalition government alive.

The billionaire tycoon has called for his party to vote against the motion of confidence in the government.

"Despite the risks, I have decided to put an end to the Letta government," Berlusconi said in a letter to Tempi magazine published Tuesday, in which he blamed Letta and Italy's president for not protecting him from his legal woes.

But he was left on the back foot on the eve of the vote after his chief protege -- Interior Minister Angelino Alfano -- said he was "firmly convinced that our party as a whole should vote confidence".

Tensions within the country's uneasy coalition have spiked since Italy's top court upheld a tax fraud conviction against Berlusconi in August and calls from his allies for a pardon from President Giorgio Napolitano fell on deaf ears.

"In a democratic state, all sentences must be respected," Letta told lawmakers in the Senate in a clear reference to his rival's legal woes.

Despite fears that political instability could undermine efforts by the euro zone's third-largest economy to rein in its budget deficit, the three-time former premier has called for fresh elections.

Senior party figures have said 40 PDL senators are ready to vote for the government, which would hand Letta the overall majority he needs.

The premier holds a comfortable majority in the lower house but is only sure of 137 votes from his own Democratic Party (PD) and centrist allies in the Senate -- meaning he needs at least 24 extra to secure the 161-seat majority there.

He may be able to count on a few votes from opposition parties such as the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, but has sworn not to limp on without strong enough support to implement much-needed economic and structural reforms.

The confidence vote will be held after Letta's address, followed later in the day by a vote in the Chamber of Deputies lower house.

Even if he clinches Wednesday's vote, analysts have warned that his government -- which was cobbled together after a February election ended in a lengthy deadlock -- will necessarily be weaker with Berlusconi in opposition.

If he loses the vote, President Napolitano will be forced to try and cobble together a new government or send the country back to the polls, a move which political observers agree risks ending in yet another stalemate.

While investors appear confident Letta can survive, with stock markets closing 3.11 percent higher on Tuesday, analysts warn recession-hit Italy's fiscal policy targets are at risk and the drama is delaying the 2014 budget.

The country is suffering the longest downturn since the Second World War and is struggling to meet a public deficit target of 2.9 percent for this year -- under the EU-mandated 3.0 percent.

The jobless rate has also returned to a record high of 12.2 percent, with youth unemployment also at its highest ever level of 40.1 percent.

If those Berlusconi slams as "traitors" do decide to vote pro-Letta, it not only risks tearing apart a party that has dominated the political scene since the early 1990s but would leave the 77-year-old increasingly friendless.

The left-wing Repubblica daily compared the vote showdown to July 25 1943, when fascist dictator Mussolini was voted out of power.

However, Antonio Polito for the Corriere della Sera warned: "Berlusconi has seven lives and could invent an eighth for himself."

A Senate committee on Friday will decide if he should be expelled from parliament under a new law aimed at cleaning up Italian politics.

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