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Italy's Berlusconi backs off on plan to bring down government

In a reversal, Italy's former leader throws his support behind Prime Minister Enrico Letta after his own party's members threaten to desert him.

October 02, 2013|By Tom Kington
  • Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends the Italian Senate vote Wednesday. He had prompted Parliament's confidence vote on Italy's government by ordering five ministers in his party to resign from the Cabinet.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends the Italian Senate vote… (Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty…)

ROME — In a shocking reversal that left his party in disarray and could seriously damage his political fortunes, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made a U-turn on plans to bring down the Italian government and force early elections.

Berlusconi threw his support behind Premier Enrico Letta in a crucial confidence vote Wednesday after members of his own party threatened to desert him.

Letta is trying to pass reforms intended to drag Italy out of its most serious recession since World War II.

After last-ditch talks with rebels in his party, the 77-year-old media mogul made a brief speech to the Senate shortly before the vote, saying, "We have decided, not without some internal strife, to support the government."

Berlusconi's future now depends partly on whether the dissidents — as many as 40 in the Senate and the lower house, according to former loyalist Carlo Giovanardi — rejoin his ranks or form a new parliamentary group.

A tense day in the Senate began with Letta arguing that derailing his left-right coalition Cabinet would sabotage economic recovery in Italy, where the unemployment rate for young people has hit 40%.

"Italy is running a risk that could be fatal without remedy," he said. "Thwarting this risk, to seize or not seize the moment, depends on the choices we will make in this chamber."

Berlusconi had prompted the confidence vote by ordering five ministers in his party to resign from the Cabinet on Saturday. It was a furious reaction to a pending vote in the Senate on whether to oust him from the legislative body after his tax fraud conviction was upheld in August.

But Letta rebuffed the resignations, and the five were sitting next to him in the Senate on Wednesday.

"During our meeting this morning, news that bits of the party were splitting off continued to arrive, and therefore, for the good of the party, Berlusconi chose to back the confidence vote," said Alessandra Mussolini, a supporter of Berlusconi in the Senate and a granddaughter of former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Letta won the vote comfortably by 235 to 70 after Berlusconi's speech. Hearing Berlusconi backtrack, Letta reacted with surprise, laughing and shaking his head.

It was the first such open rebellion against Berlusconi, who dominated Italian politics for two decades with a party he created, drafting managers from his media empire into Parliament.

On Friday, a Senate commission is likely to remove Berlusconi from the upper chamber over the tax fraud conviction, a decision that requires a vote of the full Senate. Also this month, he must decide whether to opt for a year of social work or house arrest as his sentence. Meanwhile, magistrates are investigating claims that he paid a senator about $4 million from 2006 to 2008 to switch sides and join his party.

As Berlusconi left the Senate on Wednesday, a crowd gathered to heckle him.

But one analyst said it was too soon to consider the three-time prime minister's career to be over.

"This is the long twilight of his career, but the end will only come for Berlusconi when he is defeated at the ballot box," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor of politics at Rome's LUISS Guido Carli University.

It is true, he said, that Berlusconi will have trouble bringing another threat to topple the Letta government. "But you can't rule it out," D'Alimonte said. "What happened today is crazy, but Italy can be a crazy country."

Kington is a special correspondent.

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