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Italian ‘third pole’ to challenge Berlusconi

August 12, 2010

By Guy Dinmore and Guilia Segreti, Published: August 12 2010

Renewed warnings by Silvio Berlusconi that he is ready to call early elections after losing his parliamentary majority have intensified behind-the-scenes efforts to form a new opposition alliance backed by prominent industrialists and business people.

Commonly referred to as the “third pole”, the tentative centrist grouping remains undefined but could lead to a reshaping of Italian politics, spelling the end of a brief dawn of a two-party system dominated by Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty and the centre-left opposition Democratic party. The prime minister’s midterm crisis has plunged Italy into confusion following last month’s acrimonious defection from his party of some 45 lawmakers led by Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament.

According to party leaders, Mr Berlusconi, 73, intends to call a vote of confidence next month. Should he lose, Giorgio Napolitano, president, will be asked to dissolve parliament.

Mr Fini, who had allied himself to Mr Berlusconi since 1994, may yet grant his conditional support to the government.

Mr Berlusconi warned him on Wednesday that the alternative was “painful choices” – a strong hint he would gamble on seeking a new electoral mandate.

A mooted “third pole” would see Mr Fini, a former neo-fascist who has moved to the mainstream, entering an alliance with the centrist Catholic UDC led by Pier Ferdinando Casini, who split from Mr Berlusconi in 2008, plus deserters from the Democrats.

Opinion polls are disputed but some figures suggest such an alliance could attract about 20 per cent of an electorate increasingly disaffected with the two big parties. Support from business people impatient with Mr Berlusconi’s lack of economic reform is being sought to give the “third pole” greater credibility.

Sources close to the process named several key figures said to be interested, including Luca di Montezemolo, head of Ferrari, and business allies such as Gianni Punzo and Alberto Bombassei, who are both involved in his high-speed train venture.

Others mentioned are Corrado Passera, head of Intesa Sanpaolo bank, and Roberto Colaninno, who runs Piaggio scooters. Both helped Mr Berlusconi rescue Alitalia, the former state-run airline, from bankruptcy last year.

Mr Montezemolo, who hails from the old nobility and would cut an unlikely figure at the hustings, denies he harbours political ambitions. Industry sources also cast doubt on whether other chief executives would openly challenge Mr Berlusconi while he remains a formidable force.

The prime minister’s loyalists are already ridiculing the “third pole” concept.

The idea was “science fiction”, wrote Bruno Vespa, Italy’s best-known talkshow host, in his column in Panorama, a magazine owned by Mr Berlusconi. He suggested that not even Mr Fini believed in it.

Watching closely is the Church, which likes the Catholic credentials of Mr Casini and Mr Montezemolo but is suspicious of the secularist tendencies among Mr Fini’s rebels on issues such as euthanasia and gay marriage.

Famiglia Cristiana, an influential Catholic weekly often critical of the government, lashed out again this week in an editorial that said: “Public opinion, while drugged by television, is disgusted … by a political class which quarrels about everything, distant from the people and incapable of resolving the nation’s grave problems.”

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