Berlusconi scrounging for votes to hold onto gov't

After falling out with close ally and party co-founder Gianfranco Fini, Italian prime minister fights to stave off two no-confidence measures in parliament.

December 13, 2010 18:15
2 minute read.
Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi in Parliament

311_Silvio Berlusconi. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ROME — Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi urged lawmakers Monday to support him in looming confidence votes, warning that bringing down his government would be "folly" because stability is essential as the country battles an economic crisis.

Fighting for his political survival, the Italian leader appealed to a group of rebel lawmakers who have vowed to try to oust him during Tuesday' scheduled votes. He offered to negotiate a new agenda that would allow the government to survive until new parliamentary elections are held in 2013, as well as a Cabinet reshuffle to give government positions to those who support him in the crucial parliamentary test.

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"The last thing Italy needs is a political crisis," Berlusconi argued in a 30-minute speech to the Senate.

Berlusconi faces votes Tuesday in both houses of parliament after a dramatic falling-out with his one-time closest ally, Gianfranco Fini, his party's co-founder.

The 74-year-old Berlusconi was once immensely popular, but his approval ratings have nose-dived and his political capital diluted amid scandals engulfing his private life, reports of lavish parties and alleged encounters with prostitutes.

Berlusconi based much of his speech on the risks Italy would face in the event of a government downfall.

His government has generally won praise for its reaction to the global financial crisis, steadfastly directed by Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti and including a rigorous austerity package.

Italy has a high public debt level, and recently faced renewed threats of becoming engulfed in the euro zone'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 levels.

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

But early reaction to his appeal was negative.

A Fini ally, Adolfo Urso, branded the speech "frankly disappointing given the expectations and the needs of the country." Urso is one of four members of the Cabinet who resigned after the breakup between Fini and Berlusconi.

The premier is expected to win in the Senate, where lawmakers will be voting on a motion in support of the government brought by Berlusconi's allies.

He risks more in the lower house, where the split with Fini has potentially deprived him of a majority. With the no-confidence vote expected to be decided by just a handful of votes, Berlusconi has been trying to persuade undecided lawmakers.

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