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Europe

Italy's government hangs by a thread

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is confident of overcoming the latest political crisis in his government. His survival will depend on what happens in confidence votes scheduled for early December.

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi's days in politics appear to be numbered

The latest Italian drama began when Deputy Industry Minister Adolfo Urso went on national television to announce he had resigned from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right government, along with three other ministers.

"We propose a new government, a new majority, a new agenda for reform," Urso said. "Berlusconi is holing himself up in his palace like in a bunker."

Fed up with yet another Berlusconi scandal involving young women and prostitutes, the leader's former allies said they wanted to form a new center-right coalition with a new leader - one capable of addressing Italy's economic slowdown. The four MPs who resigned are supporters of parliamentary speaker Gianfranco Fini, a former ally of Berlusconi turned rival. They are part of Fini's new center-right splinter group called Future and Freedom.

For now, though, Berlusconi remains in power - barely. But barely has often been enough for Italy's richest man, who controls 90 percent of Italian television and has vast holdings in newspapers and publishing companies.

He faces a confidence vote in both chambers of parliament on December 14. If he loses in either, he would be forced to resign and trigger early elections.

A strong grasp on power

Gianfranco Fini

Finia was a neo-fascist turned mainstream conservative

Berlusconi said on Wednesday he was confident he could win. But most political experts expect him to be defeated in the lower house, where he no longer has a guaranteed majority since he split with Fini last summer. Still, journalist Christopher Winner said it was unlikely Berlusconi will go away without a ferocious political fight.

"It's all about loyalty and the concept of betrayal; it's fairly straight-forward Latin stuff," said Winner, the editor and Italian political columnist for the Rome-based The American Magazine. He added that despite Berlusconi's reputation as a corrupt buffoon outside Italy, inside the country, the billionaire is still the most powerful person - and one who demands complete loyalty.

"He has tremendous power at almost every level of Italian life," Winner said. "It's extremely possible that he's warning some of the Fini insiders that should they go through with their warning against him, they will pay in one way or another."

Population divided

While support for Berlusconi has weakened in parliament, Italy's population remains divided. A poll published in the newspaper Corriere della Sera last weekend showed that 27 percent of Italians said they'd still vote for Berlusconi's People of Freedom party. It was followed by the center-left opposition Democratic Party at 24 percent.

Berlusconi puppet in a demonstration in rome

Demonstrators have ridiculed Berlusconi in past protests

For his supporters, Berlusconi has made a positive difference, especially in his response to emergencies like the flooding in the north and the earthquake in L'Aquila. They said he has helped Italy navigate the financial crisis.

Others feel the time has come for a change. They have grown weary of his raucous private life, which has distracted him from the country's real problems.

The beginning of the end

Winner said despite Berlusconi's power, his days in politics are likely numbered.

"This is the end of the cycle, it's only a matter of time," Winner said about the 74-year-old. "The only thing that Berlusconi wanted was to get through this mandate. This was the last time around. What's galling him is that is being denied him, the chance of seeing through this legislature as he did the previous one and it's coming from within his own party, which is absolutely and utterly intolerable to him."

Meanwhile, on the same day as the confidence votes, Italy's constitutional court is due to rule on whether Berlusconi has to face trial over charges that he bribed British lawyer David Mills to give false testimony to protect his business interests.

But Italians know not to write Berlusconi off too soon. He has bounced back before, surviving a string of sex scandals and corruption accusations. The votes in December will show whether the time has come for him to finally leave Italy's political stage.

Author: Megan Williams, Rome (sac, AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner

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