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Berlusconi dissenters abstain to avoid electoral showdown

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has survived a tough parliamentary test. A break-away group of former allies abstained in a vote against a junior minister, avoiding a fresh general election for now.

Gianfranco Fini and Silvio Berlusconi

Fini and Berlusconi's alliance came to an abrupt end

The conservative coalition of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has passed its first test in parliament since a damaging defection of members of his party – avoiding any immediate need for a general election.

"We will not go to the polls for now," said Minister for Reforms Umberto Bossi.

Supporters of Berlusconi's estranged former political ally Gianfranco Fini declined to take part in a vote of no-confidence against junior justice minister Giacomo Caliendo.

The motion, put forward by opposition parties, was defeated in the lower house Chamber of Deputies with 299 votes against, 229 votes in favor and 75 abstentions.

A ballot box is emptied in Rome

Elections in Italy usually take place in the spring

Berlusconi had moved to expel Fini from the center-right People of Freedom party last week. Fini left - but took 33 other parliamentarians with him to join the new Future and Freedom party. Crucially, this denied Berlusconi and his allies a majority in parliament and the premier threatened early elections if provoked by Fini.

Caliendo is under police investigation for allegedly trying to sell political influence. Fini and his allies avoided a showdown at the ballot box by opting for an abstention.

'Sailing without a compass'

However, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni - from Berlusconi's main coalition partners the Northern League - said that a general election could take place when parliament resumes in September. Maroni said that Berlusconi's two-year-old government was "sailing without a compass" following the split.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni

Interior Minister Maroni said elections in September were possible

"If the ship hits the rocks, we go back to the polls," Maroni told the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera on Wednesday.

The minister added that the government might be forced to break with its usual procedure of holding elections in springtime.

"I know there are no precedents for holding elections in the autumn, but that should not be ruled out in the face of a serious political crisis."

Berlusconi is believed to favor early elections if he does not have sufficient backing in parliament. Although the 73-year-old's coalition has seen its popularity slide recently, the center-left opposition is so fragmented that he could win an early poll.

Author: Richard Connor (AFP/Reuters/dpa)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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