Former ally and neo-fascist threatens Berlusconi's rule

THE Italian government faces collapse after the speaker of the lower house of parliament refused to step down after being censured by his own party.

Gianfranco Fini said his supporters should now vote against prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, his close ally and co-founder of the governing PDL (People for Freedom) party.

"Obviously I have no intention of resigning," Mr Fini told the press after Mr Berlusconi effectively booted him out of the party they founded jointly two years ago, raising the spectre of early elections.

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A combative Fini attacked Berlusconi for "having not exactly a liberal concept of democracy" and for trying to run a government like an autocratic CEO, "which has nothing to do with our democratic institutions".

Standing behind Mr Fini, 58, were parliamentarians who will join him in his party rebellion, calling the faction Freedom and Future for Italy.

A parliamentary official later said they had 33 members in the lower house plus Mr Fini, enabling them to deprive Mr Berlusconi of a majority there. They have ten supporters in the Senate, which could cut Mr Berlusconi's majority there to just two votes.

Mr Berlusconi, who accused Mr Fini of being a traitor and conspirator and trying to inflict a "slow death" to their party, met party leaders late Friday to decide his next move.

Mr Fini said his fellow rebels would "loyally support the government every time it acts within the framework of the electoral programme, but will not hesitate to fight proposals that are unfair or damaging to the wider interest".

After months of tension and even open hostility between the estranged conservatives, Mr Berlusconi's party issued a tough document censuring Mr Fini, saying his actions and comments no longer reflected the ideals of the party he helped found.

The coalition, made up of the PDL and the Northern League, needs a majority of 316 in the lower house.Before the split, it could count on up to 344 votes, including 14 from smaller parties who vote on an ad hoc basis.

But the new numbers could deprive Berlusconi of this comfortable cushion of nearly 30 votes, leaving him prey to whims of tiny parties or even demands from the Northern League, which caused the collapse of his first government in 1994.

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The situation caused by the de facto implosion of the centre-right was unprecedented, with no institutional guidelines on the sequence of steps over the next few days or weeks.

Several commentators said on Friday Mr Berlusconi had told his aides that if there were enough defectors, he would prefer early polls as he is convinced his party will do well without Mr Fini.

Mr Fini has enraged the prime minister by hammering away at the theme of morality and legality in government, and insisting that officials implicated in judicial investigations should resign.

Commentators said if the political situation becomes untenable, President Giorgio Napolitano could appoint an interim government to run business until new elections.

Mr Berlusconi has been locked for months in conflict with Mr Fini, once considered his heir as leader of the centre-right. The censure document, signed by all but three of the 36 members of the presidency of the PDL, rebuked Mr Fini for positions "incompatible with the party line".

It accused Mr Fini of waging "political opposition" within his own party. But Mr Fini listed the charges against him and defiantly rejected each one at a news conference.

The former neo-fascist dissolved his National Alliance party to merge with Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia after nearly 14 years supporting him in three governments.

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