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Forza Italia completes government breakaway, as Berlusconi awaits fate

Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party has formally moved into opposition, a move that weakens but does not topple Enrico Letta's coalition government. Berlusconi also faces a vote on his political future on Wednesday.

Center-right politicians in Italy who have stayed on the side of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi withdrew from the country's grand coalition government on Tuesday, but still left the ruling alliance with a slim majority in the upper house of parliament, the Senate.

"The grand coalition no longer exists," said Renato Brunetta, a senior member of Berlusconi's breakaway center-right alliance, called Forza Italia ("Go Italy").

Some former members of Berlusconi's alliance have set up a fresh grouping called The New Center-Right that remains a part of the grand coalition led by center-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta. Letta always enjoyed a healthy majority in the lower house owing to Italian electoral law - which guarantees a lower-house majority for the strongest single party - but his control over the senate is now weakened.

Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, once a protege of Berlsuconi's, leads The New Center-Right.

Later on Tuesday night, the Italian government comfortably won a Senate confidence vote on the debt-laden country's 2014 budget by 171 votes to 135 - an immediate test for Letta's Democratic Party after the partial breakaway.

Senate vote on Berlusconi ban

On Wednesday evening, the Senate was scheduled to turn its attention to Berlusconi himself. The litigation-laden former leader faces an upper house vote on expelling him from the house, as a consequence of his tax fraud conviction upheld at appeal by Italy's highest court in August.

Senators loyal to Letta and members of the populist opposition Five Star Movement are expected to broadly vote in favor of a Berlusconi ban, meaning his chances of survival appeared slim ahead of the vote.

The media mogul and former prime minister is unlikely to serve his official sentence of four years in prison owing to his age; the 77-year-old is considered likely to serve a period of either house arrest or community service instead. A Monday evening meal with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, an old friend, fueled speculation in Italy that Berlusconi might seek to leave for Russia.

Berlusconi is also in the process of appealing separate convictions on charges of abuse of power and soliciting sex from an underage prostitute. The veteran politician denies the charges against him and claims he is the victim of a conspiracy. In a televised appeal on one of his family-owned channels on Tuesday, he appealed to his senate opponents to "show a minimum of independence" and "put a hand on their conscience" in Wednesday's vote.

msh/ch (AFP, dpa, Reuters)