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Berlusconi faces party dissent in bid to bring down Letta government

Silvio Berlusconi faces a revolt from People of Freedom party lawmakers over his plans to topple Italy's coalition government. The legislature's survival depends on defections away from Berlusconi's right-wing camp.

Angelino Alfano, the outgoing deputy prime minister and interior minister and the second-highest figure in Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL), urged his leader to reconsider bringing down the coalition government led by Enrico Letta. The prime minister will test support for his coalition on Wednesday before deciding whether to go ahead with a confidence vote.

"I remain firmly convinced that all of our party should tomorrow give its vote of confidence to Letta," Alfano said, after holding talks with four other PDL members who had served in the government but resigned Monday on Berlusconi's orders.

Berlusconi broke with Prime Minister Letta's administration on Saturday after coalition allies refused to block procedures to expel him from parliament because of a tax fraud conviction in August. A court had sentenced Berlusconi to one year under house arrest or doing community service.

'Enough of us'

If a no-confidence vote were to force Letta out of office, President Giorgio Napolitano could ask him or another politician to create a new majority for a transitional government. The president has said that he would only call snap elections as a last resort - something several members of PDL appear to want to avoid.

"There are enough of us, we may be more than 40, and we are determined to preserve the government," said Carlo Giovanardi, another PDL dissenter and the parliamentary affairs minister under Berlusconi from 2001 to 2006.

In February's elections, the center-left coalition led by Letta and his Democratic Party fell 20 seats short of a majority in the 321-member Senate and assumed office last spring ago in an awkward coalition with Berlusconi's right-wing bloc. Letta plans to speak in the Senate at 9:30 a.m. (0730 UTC) on Wednesday, and again at 4 p.m. in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, in an attempt to muster enough support to survive a vote of confidence.

Rare dissent

Berlusconi has not reacted publicly to the defections and spent Tuesday meeting PDL members. He displayed his usual candor, however, in extracts of a letter published online Tuesday by Tempi, a weekly publication with links to Communion and Liberation, a conservative Catholic group. In the letter, Berlusconi blamed Letta and President Napolitano for not granting him immunity from the tax fraud charges.

"They should have realized that, failing to take up the issue of the protection of the political rights of the leader of the country's center-right, they destroyed a key part of their credibility and eroded the basis of parliamentary democracy," Berlusconi wrote. He accused Letta of allowing his "political assassination through judicial means."

It appears that not all members of Berlusconi's party share the former prime minister's sentiments - or at least not to the point that they're willing to bring down the government over them. Carlos Giovanardi, another of Berlusconi's once-loyal legislators, said that 40 PDL senators would likely vote for the government, which would hand Letta a large majority, and that they had no intention of giving up their party membership to do so.

"We are staying in the PDL," Giovanardi said. "The others can leave. We want to remain a moderate force."

mkg/rc (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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