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Key Debate on Berlusconi's Fate Begins : Italy: The besieged prime minister calls former allies 'turncoats.' He may resign today.


ROME — Italy's long and agonizing political crisis appeared to be nearing a climax Wednesday--if not an end--as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his enemies began an angry parliamentary showdown amid mounting reports that his resignation was imminent.

In a 45-minute speech, the media magnate denounced onetime allies attempting to topple his 8-month-old government as "turncoats" betraying not only him but the nation.

His opponents told him his days in office were numbered and accused him of monarchical pretense.

"I must remind you, Mr. Berlusconi," declared Northern League leader Umberto Bossi--once an ally, now an enemy--"that the state is not you, and after you, there will be no deluge. The state will not collapse."

The dramatic debate--punctuated by cheers and jeers, heckling and banner-waving--stormed on into the night. It was a prelude to a vote of confidence likely to take place within the following 48 hours unless Berlusconi preempts it by submitting his resignation.

A government spokesman said Wednesday night that Berlusconi's resignation could come today.

If he resigns, he is not likely to go quietly. He gave all the appearances Wednesday of a man determined to fight on, either by attempting to form a new coalition or fighting for power in a new election. Earlier this week, he called on his followers to take to the streets in massive demonstrations if he is ousted.

He has, Berlusconi told Parliament, "a mandate to govern." Only the voters can settle things now, he said. "It is inevitable."

Many observers here said the gap in Parliament between leftists and conservatives would make formation of anything but an interim government impossible. A number of members of Parliament speaking Wednesday advocated just that--an interim, caretaker government to forestall chaos.

The death of Italy's 53rd postwar government, if it happens, will come from the same forces that gave it life: corruption, fiscal instability, general discontent and ceaseless feuding among parties and factions. Those were the conditions when Berlusconi's conservative coalition surged to electoral victory March 28, convincing voters that a populist "outsider" and a Parliament of novices would bring an end to Italy's troubles.

Instead of fixing the problems, Berlusconi has become identified with them. His fiscal austerity measures--particularly attempts to cut government-funded pensions--alienated trade unions. He and his business empire, Fininvest, became prime targets of Italy's aggressive corruption probers.

Berlusconi's coalition--consisting of his own Forza Italia movement, the neo-Fascist National Alliance and Bossi's Northern League--was shaky from the start. It began to disintegrate earlier this month when Bossi formally withdrew, taking most, if not all, of his party with him.

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