Italy may be facing early elections following a dramatic falling out between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and a powerful political ally. Berlusconi has rejected speculation that his government is at risk of collapse.
Berlusconi has seen disappearing allies and dropping approval ratings
Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of Italy's lower house of parliament, appears to have come out on top after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi broke ties between the two earlier this week.
"The numbers seem to argue for Fini and against Berlusconi," said Angelo Panebianco of the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera, after 33 lawmakers deserted the prime minister Friday to support Fini.
Following Berlusconi's attempt earlier in the week to oust Fini from the ruling People of Liberty (PDL) party the two co-founded in 2008, Fini formed his own faction in the lower house, dubbed Future and Freedom for Italy.
As Berlusconi sheds allies and his approval ratings drop, critics say he will no longer enjoy the margin of error he once did - nor be able to call a vote of confidence when it suits him, as he has recently done with increasing frequency.
Late on Thursday, Berlusconi's People of Liberty party moved to censure Gianfranco Fini, the party's co-founder, accusing him of "destructive criticism" and asking for his resignation as speaker of the lower house of parliament.
The prime minister labeled Fini as a traitor and conspirator, and accused him of trying to bring about a "slow death" to their party.
"The positions of Mr. Fini are absolutely incompatible with the founding principles of the People of Liberty party," said Berlusconi in a televised press conference. "It breaks my heart but I don't think we can carry on like this."
Fini refused to resign and approved the formation of a new political bloc in both houses of parliament made up of his allies, theoretically giving him significant clout in key votes.
'There is no risk,' says Berlusconi
Berlusconi, right, and Fini co-founded the People of Liberty party in 2008
Despite media reports describing Berlusconi's two-year-old government as being on the "brink of crisis," the prime minister has insisted that Fini's departure will have no detrimental effect.
"There is no risk," Berlusconi said. "We have a majority."
Berlusconi on Friday reportedly told his aides that if there were enough defectors and "if they make our lives difficult," he would indeed call an early election before his term ends in 2013, secure in his belief that his party will succeed without Fini.
Trouble brewing for months
The rift between Berlusconi and Fini, once considered his heir as leader of the center-right party, had been developing since last year. In recent months, however, tensions had escalated.
Fini had criticized the morality and legality of Berlusconi's government, clashing with him on immigration policy, the response to corruption probes against ministers and an immunity law for politicians. He also criticized the prime minster for not allowing dissent within the party.
Italian daily Corriere della Sera said the break-up would be "insidious for the entire [political] system" and have long-lasting effects on the unity of the center-right. Berlusconi has left it up to parliamentarians to decide for themselves whether Fini should remain as speaker of the lower house.
If the political situation deteriorates further, President Giorgio Napolitano has the option of appointing an interim government until new elections can be held.
Author: David Levitz (AFP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler