Italy's prime minister is to face another vote of confidence in parliament on Friday. Silvio Berlusconi's government has faced several political setbacks, with the premier's various legal troubles fanning the flames.
Berlusconi might be forced to resign after Friday's vote
Italy's center-right coalition, with its wafer-thin majority, braced itself Thursday for an upcoming vote of confidence in parliament.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addressed parliament ahead of the Friday ballot, saying there was "no credible alternative" to his government.
If it weren't for the heavy bags under his eyes and his haggard looks, the speech would have qualified as vintage Berlusconi - the media mogul blamed the media, political opposition and judges for Italy's problems, while promising prosperity and change if the country stuck by him.
"I am here with a cohesive political majority, apart from parliamentary accidents, to witness that Italy can win by beating the strategy of pessimism," Berlusconi told parliament in a 15-minute address.
But even by the standards of Berlusconi's roller-coaster ride in politics, the billionaire's grip on power is hanging by a thread. The "parliamentary accident" he mentioned in his speech took place earlier this week, when his weakened coalition lost a key parliamentary vote on the budget by one ballot. This defeat led to opposition calls for Berlusconi to resign and presidential encouragement that he put his government's stability to the test.
After the vote, amid cheers from the opposition, a clearly furious Berlsuconi shoved past Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, who showed up just seconds too late to cast what would have been the decisive ballot. Tension between the two was already high; Tremonti has been pushing for unpopular reforms in his bid to shore up Italy's finances, at a time when Berlsuconi's top priority is clinging to his position.
Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, left, and Berlusconi currently share an uneasy working relationship
"The government is not coping with the situation," said opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani. "The problems have all been laid out, but [Berlusconi] only knows how to stay nailed to his seat by using tricks."
Berlusconi is also under personal pressure in Italy's courts, facing four separate trials and allegations ranging from fraud to paying for sex with a minor. Given the constant flow of revelations from his now-infamous "bunga bunga" sex parties, more cases could be in the pipeline. This, coupled with the country's economic woes, has put the prime minister's popularity rating at an all-time low.
Berlusconi's speech was primarily a rallying cry aimed at his supporters - many of the opposition parties boycotted the address - ahead of Friday's vote of confidence, the second his government will have faced this year.
The prime minister intends to stay in power at least until scheduled general elections in 2013, but his uneasy coalition partners, the Northern League, have publicly said they are not sure he will see out his term in office.
Berlsuconi is under fire in parliament, court and in public
Amid the widening rifts among erstwhile allies, economists and business leaders have suggested that an interim government of some type should take over as Italy fights a national debt approaching 120 percent of gross domestic product.
"A so-called social coalition could be a good solution for the problems Italy has to manage in this moment," Gian Maria Gros-Pietro, a professor of economics at LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome, told Deutsche Welle.
No credible alternative?
A broad, interim government combining political players from many corners is an idea that Berlusconi has dismissed as impractical. On Thursday he also said early elections were "not the solution to our problems."
For economist Gros-Pietro, a rainbow coalition combining many people and parties would be ideal as Italy seeks to implement unpopular economic reforms. The three major credit ratings agencies last week downgraded Italy's perceived creditworthiness and Central Bank chief Mario Draghi on Wednesday urged politicians to act more quickly to implement change.
"The goal of relaunching growth is finally largely shared," said Draghi. "But bids to adopt the necessary measures so far have collided with apparently insurmountable difficulties."
Draghi has urged swift action on sovereign debt
To overcome these difficulties, Gros-Pietro said, a large coalition would be required rather than Berlusconi's threadbare coalition.
"And in my opinion, it would be a good thing if the people involved in presenting and supporting and defending these maneuvers and measures would be people with no intention to run as candidates in the next elections. That's because it will be their responsibility to present and support very unpopular measures," Gros-Pietro said.
On the need for swift action, at least, Berlsuconi agrees with the economist; he made it clear in his Thursday speech that time was of the essence for all of Italy, not just his government in Rome.
"The government asks for a confirmation of confidence because it is deeply aware of the risks facing the country, and because the deadlines imposed by the markets are not compatible with those of certain political rituals," the embattled prime minister said.
Should Berlsuconi's government lose Friday's vote, the premier would be obliged to resign.
Author: Megan Williams, Rome / msh
Editor: Martin Kuebler