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Berlusconi challenges rivals over vote

July 8, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, July 8, 2010

Facing his worst week in politics since his triumph at the polls two years ago, Silvio Berlusconi yesterday warned rivals within his party that their centre-right government would fall if it lost a vote of confidence on its controversial 25bn euro austerity package.

“If parliament does not approve this budget then we will go home,” declared the 73-year-old prime minister and media mogul in an interview with one of the Mediaset television channels he owns.

Calling his decision to call confidence votes in both houses of parliament “an act of courage”, Mr Berlusconi’s declaration was aimed at dissenters within his own People of Liberty party who have stalled progress of the cuts through parliament by tabling over 1,200 amendments.

Mr Berlusconi is under pressure on all fronts, his government stumbling from one crisis to another.

This week a second minister resigned because of his involvement in a corruption case, after availing himself of a law designed to protect Mr Berlusconi and his cabinet from having to appear in court. Other key aides are being investigated for corruption.

Transport workers last night were to begin a 24-hour strike against their wage freeze. Police have published newspaper advertisements protesting against the proposed cuts, and yesterday even diplomats threatened strike action.

Mr Berlusconi’s defiant stance on television will not be read or heard by Italians today because of their one-day strike called in protest against a separate bill that would restrict police use of wiretaps and impose severe penalties on media that publish transcripts.

The prime minister insisted the intercepts bill, known in the media as the “gag law”, was “sacrosanct” and brushed aside protests by magistrates who say it will compromise mafia investigations.

The sense of a government in disarray is reflected in opinion polls. Corriere della Sera published an ISPO survey showing Mr Berlusconi’s rating down to 41 per cent from 50 at the end of May. On television Mr Berlusconi insisted his popularity was at a “European record” of 63 per cent.

Still the figures suggest Mr Berlusconi would probably win a snap election, meaning that contenders to succeed him would prefer his resignation and replacement by a caretaker administration rather than a return to the ballot box.

Without naming Gianfranco Fini, his party’s co-founder who has publicly challenged his policies and leadership style, Mr Berlusconi said internal debate was fine, but decisions taken by the majority had to be respected.

“Whoever wants to dissent, should realise he is not in tune with the voters,” the prime minister warned in a hint that he would be ready to take their battle to the country.

The senate had been expected to call a vote on the austerity package yesterday but requested more time, setting the confidence vote for July 15. By calling such a vote, Mr Berlusconi is signalling his intention to cut short debate on amendments and ram it through.

Mr Berlusconi and Giuglio Tremonti, finance minister, are to hold a crucial meeting today with heads of regional governments protesting against their share of the cuts – about half the total – to be imposed by Rome.

The prime minister is in effect caught between the ire of the powerful regional governors – many from his own party – and the rigidity of Mr Tremonti, another rival for power who has the advantage of being close to the hardline Northern League, a key Milan-based partner in the coalition government.

In a joint statement on Wednesday night, Mr Berlusconi and Mr Tremonti insisted the overall figure of 25bn euros had to stand but indicated some leeway in how the pain would be shared as Italy grapples with its debt mountain.

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