2 Oct 2013

Berlusconi blinks over showdown with Italian PM

In a major turnaround brought about by a split in his party, Silvio Berlusconi pledges support for Italy’s government and helps the PM win a key vote – days after forcing his own ministers to resign.

When the vote of confidence in the government finally took place on Wednesday afternoon, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta gained the support of the majority in the 321-member senate.

But Italy’s parliament had seen a series of fast-moving developments on Wednesday morning, even before the crucial vote of confidence in the government had even taken place.

The vote was forced after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi ordered his five cabinet ministers to leave the government. The centre-right media mogul wanted to destabilise the government because of a scheduled vote that could strip him of his own senate seat following his tax fraud conviction and four-year prison sentence.

But it emerged on Wednesday morning that Mr Berlusconi had little support among his own party. Senators within his People of Freedom Party (PDL) party said they would vote in support of the government, and a group of 25 senators even announced they were splitting to form a new party, the Popolari per l’Italia.

Presumably realising he was running the risk of losing, the 77-year-old politician then came out in support of Mr Letta. In brief remarks before the confidence vote, Mr Berlusconi said: “Italy needs a government that can produce structural and institutional reforms that the country needs to modernize. We have decided, not without internal strife, to vote in confidence.”

The majority of Italians are telling us that they can no longer take these scenes of bloodshed in the political arena – Enrico Letta

In a speech to the senate before the vote, Prime Minister Enrico Letta tried to persuade senators to defy Mr Berlusconi and urged them not to allow the government of Europe’s third biggest economy to collapse.

“The majority of Italians are telling us – I should say they are yelling at us – that they can no longer take these scenes of bloodshed in the political arena,” Mr Letta said. “I am asking for a confidence vote for Italy. A confidence vote for Italy and for Italians.”

Party split

But it soon emerged that he may not have needed to work so hard to try and convince them, after news of a PDL split emerged.

PDL party sources said that Mr Berlusconi was considering backing the prime minister in an attempt to hide the size of a split in his party.

On entering the senate, he appeared more conciliatory, saying “We’ll see what happens. We’ll listen to Letta’s speech and then decide,” say Italian news agencies.

Mr Berlusconi’s PDL party has been badly divided ever since Italy’s high court upheld his tax fraud conviction and sentence in August.

A law passed just last year, says that anyone receiving sentences longer than two years cannot hold public office for six years. Mr Berlusconi has challenged the law’s constitutionality and has accused judges who handed down the sentence of trying to eliminate him from Italy’s political life.

And this latest split will cause further chaos amongst the PDL, especially after Mr Berlusconi’s closest ally and political heir, Angelino Alfano, openly defied him, saying he would support Mr Letta.