Scandal-hit Silvio Berlusconi is urged to stand down 'for good of country'

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was asked to resign yesterday by his former ally following weeks of sex scandals involving a teenage girl and an escort.

• Gianfranco Fini (lewft) alluded in a speech to Berlusconi's (right) relationship with escort Nadia Macri Picture: AP

Gianfranco Fini, who was one of Berlusconi's staunchest allies until a bitter feud drove them apart earlier this year, said he should "show political courage and resign."

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Mr Fini's call came after the 74-year-old premier was linked to belly dancer Karima el Mahrug who was just 17 when invited to a party at his house and escort Nadia Macri who said she was paid 10,000 euros to have sex with him.

Mr Berlusconi has steadfastly refused to fall on his sword, defiantly insisting that the claims against him are all part of a plot orchestrated by left wing magistrates or the Mafia.

However Lower House Speaker Mr Fini, who is seen by many as a potential successor, said that if Mr Berlusconi "really had the interests of the country at heart, he would resign immediately."

He added that if he did not go then he would have no option but to pull his Future and Liberty party out of the centre right coalition - triggering possible elections ahead of those scheduled for 2013.

Although Mr Fini made no direct reference to the sex scandals involving prime minister he implied it heavily in a speech to his Future and Liberty faithful at Bastia in Umbria.

He said: "It is with sadness that I read of the collapse of the House of the Gladiators in Pompeii - news that has gone around the world, along with news in recent days Italians do not deserve."

During a speech that lasted 90 minutes, he added: "There is a sense of moral decadence and this decadence is the result of a loss of decorum among those who are called to be public personalities and must lead by example.

"We are not against Berlusconi, we are against Berlusconi and his People of Freedom coalition, that page has closed or is closing because they are not up to our desires and projects."

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Mr Fini was expelled by Mr Berlusconi from the People of Freedom coalition in July after the two fell out following the premier's insistence on bringing in an immunity law for those in public office.

The split left Mr Berlusconi without a secure parliamentary majority after Mr Fini took more than 40 lower house deputies and senators with him.

Mr Fini, who did back Mr Berlusconi in a confidence vote in September, said his party were willing to work with him but he had to resign and rework the political agenda.

Political commentators said the emphasis was now clearly on Mr Berlusconi and how he would react with Professor James Walston, a lecturer on Italian politics at the American University of Rome saying: "The gauntlet has been thrown down, and with a vengeance.

"There would be no guarantee that a new government would have Berlusconi as prime minister.If Berlusconi does not accept the challenge and stays where he is, Fini has said that his ministers will withdraw from the government. Berlusconi would then find it very difficult to stay put."

Infrastructure Minister Altero Matteoli said Mr Berlusconi had no intention of resigning because a government crisis would be a "shot in the dark" and have "dramatic effects on the country".

A Berlusconi resignation would not necessarily mean early elections.

Once an Italian premier resigns, the president of the republic begins consultations to see if a new government can be formed which would enjoy parliamentary support. Only if this effort fails will the president call new elections.