Italy: Beginning of the end for Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi at the Senate, in Rome. Picture: AP
Silvio Berlusconi at the Senate, in Rome. Picture: AP
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Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday made a last minute U-turn on plans to bring down the Italian government.

Berlusconi, 77, decided to back premier Enrico Letta in a crucial confidence vote after members of his own party threatened to desert him.

Following last-ditch talks with rebels in his party, the media mogul made a short speech to the Italian senate shortly before yesterday crunch vote, stating: “We have decided, not without some internal strife, to support the government.”

Earlier, at the start of a tense day in the Senate, Mr Letta said derailing his left-right coalition cabinet would sabotage economic recovery in Italy, where youth unemployment has hit 40 per cent.

“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. It depends on a yes, or a no.”

Berlusconi had prompted the confidence vote by ordering five ministers from his party to resign from the cabinet on Saturday in a furious reaction to a pending vote in the senate set to strip him of his role as senator following his conviction last month for tax fraud.

But Mr Letta refused their resignations, and the five were sitting loyally next to him in the senate on Wednesday, including Angelino Alfano, the interior minister once seen as Berlusconi’s political heir.

Another minister and Berlusconi stalwart, Gaetano Quagliariello, was brandishing a list of 23 rebels in Berlusconi’s party in the senate, enough to hand Mr Letta a narrow victory in the vote.

“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 the granddaughter of former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Mr Letta won the vote by 235 votes to 70 after Berlusconi’s speech, which he reacted to with surprise, laughing and shaking his head.

Berlusconi’s future now depends partly on whether the rebels – up to 40 in the senate and lower house according to former loyalist Carlo Giovanardi – rejoin his ranks or form a new parliamentary group.

Quagliariello said Berlusconi’s party was now in the grip of an “extreme oligarchy.” Berlusconi has been taking advice from hardliner Daniela Santanche, whose nickname is “the python.”

After dominating Italian politics for two decades with a party he created from scratch, Berlusconi has never before had to obey the dictats of his normally supine supporters.

Now, Berlusconi faces further challenges. On Friday a Senate commission is likely to vote for Berlusconi to be removed from the senate following his conviction for tax fraud, a decision that must then be upheld by a vote in the senate chamber. This month he must also decide whether to opt for a year of social service or house arrest as his sentence, while magistrates are also investigating claims he paid a senator €3 million to switch sides and join his party in 2008.

On his way out of 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 over.

“This is the long twilight of his career, but the end will only come when he is defeated at the ballot box,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of politics at Rome’s Luiss university.