Silvio Berlusconi makes final appeal as vital confidence vote looms

ITALIAN prime minister Silvio Berlusconi battled for his political survival yesterday, warning politicians they risked plunging the country into financial instability unless they support his government in a pair of confidence votes.

• The strain shows for Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, left, in parliament with close ally Umberto Bossi. Picture: AFP

The showdown in parliament today is a do-or-die test for Mr Berlusconi midway through his five-year term. The Italian leader has insisted he will survive, but the outcome is unpredictable and will likely be determined by a handful of swing lawmakers.

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The premier has been hurt by prostitution scandals and embarrassing revelations that a US diplomat described him as a "feckless" leader, according to a secret US embassy cable released by Wikileaks A fallout this summer with his former ally, Gianfranco Fini, weakened his coalition, potentially depriving him of a parliamentary majority.

In a 30-minute speech to the Senate yesterday, Mr Berlusconi hit back at his critics and outlined why lawmakers should support his government.

He offered to negotiate a new legislative agenda that would allow the government to survive until new parliamentary elections are held in 2013. He promised a Cabinet reshuffle to give government positions to those who support him in the votes. And he defended his Cabinet's record and argued that his government had successfully worked to protect Italy from becoming engulfed in the eurozone's debt crisis.

"The last thing Italy needs is a political crisis," Mr Berlusconi said, as his close ally Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, sat next to him.

Mr Berlusconi's government has generally won praise for its reaction to the global financial crisis, directed by economy minister Giulio Tremonti and including a tough austerity package.

Italy has a high public debt level, and recently faced renewed threats of becoming engulfed in the eurozone's debt crisis. But the country is still widely viewed as low-risk due to the low level of private debt, relatively sound banking system, and experience in dealing with high public debt.

"If your concern over Italy's difficult situation is honest, then the only way forward is renewing confidence in my government," Mr Berlusconi said. Such a vote, he said, "will be proof of realism and political wisdom".

He also defended his friendship with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin following revelations that US diplomats were uneasy about his close relationship with Moscow.Mr Berlusconi dismissed suggestions he personally benefited from business deals between Italian and Russian companies, saying "not one dollar has been put in my pocket".

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The prime minister also appealed to rebel politicians who sided with Mr Fini by reminding them of "the long way we have come together".

Some politicians close to Mr Fini have expressed doubts about voting against the government, fearing the consequences of opening a political crisis with no resolution in sight.

Mr Berlusconi is expected to secure today's confidence vote in the Senate, where MPs will be voting on a motion in support of the government brought by his allies.

But the risk lies in the lower house, where the split with Mr Fini has potentially deprived him of a majority.

Faced with a very close vote, Mr Berlusconi has been trying to persuade undecided MPs - drawing accusations of vote-buying and even an investigation by Rome prosecutors. He has rejected any such accusations.

If Mr Berlusconi wins, he is assured more time in office, even though a razor-thin majority is no guarantee of stability.

If he loses, he has to resign - a move that might lead to early elections.