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Rifts grow in Berlusconi’s ruling party

April 15, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, April 15, 2010

Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling centre-right People of Liberty appeared on Thursday night to be in danger of heading towards break-up after a tense meeting between the prime minister and the party’s co-founder Gianfranco Fini.

Renato Schifani, speaker of the Senate and an ally of Mr Berlusconi, was quoted by Italian media as warning that a split in the parliamentary majority would lead to early elections. But an aide to the prime minister denied the government was at risk.

Serious differences between Mr Fini, speaker of the lower house, and Mr Berlusconi have been apparent for months but reached a new level during a two-hour meeting over lunch when Mr Fini was reported to have threatened to lead a breakaway faction in parliament.

Mr Berlusconi in turn was reported to have said he would take 48 hours to reflect and that Mr Fini would have to step down as speaker if he carried out his threat. People of Liberty sources later were reported to have denied this.
Allies of Mr Fini – who merged his National Alliance into Mr Berlusconi’s party a year ago – said tensions came to a head over Mr Fini’s accusations that the party was subordinating itself to the demands of the Northern League, a hardline minority partner in the government.
The Milan-based Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi who once campaigned for an independent “Padania” in northern Italy, made the strongest gains of any party in last month’s regional elections as the nation shifted further to the right. Since then Mr Bossi has made it clear that the Northern League – which gives the coalition its majorty in the senate — expects to have a greater say over policy, particularly in giving the richer north more control over its finances.
A widening rift between Mr Berlusconi and Mr Fini – which extends to the prime minister’s ambitions to boost executive powers – is likely to undermine the government’s ability to carry out its promise to focus on economic and political reforms over the next three years.
In a statement released late on Thursday, Mr Fini sought to calm the atmosphere, saying Mr Berlusconi should remain in office until the end of his term in 2013 as Italians had voted two years ago. But, he added, the People of Liberty should be strengthened, not weakened, in order to focus on being a “great national party”.
Mr Berlusconi, 73, declined to comment on the outcome of the lunch, saying he had eaten well.
Mr Fini, who shifted his National Alliance to the centre and away from its post-fascist roots, is seen as one of several leading contenders to succeed Mr Berlusconi although it is doubtful that all his former party colleagues would join him in breaking away.

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