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Berlusconi looks to win confidence vote

September 26, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: September 26 2010

Silvio Berlusconi is set to celebrate his 74th birthday this week with a speech to parliament followed by a vote of confidence.

This is likely to confirm that the prime minister’s shaky government can still muster a majority and that his powerful media empire is capable of wounding his rivals.

At the weekend, Italians were digesting the latest episode of a daily political soap opera after Gianfranco Fini – once Mr Berlusconi’s closest ally but now his biggest threat – released a nine-minute video statement in which he said he would consider resigning as speaker of parliament over the disputed ownership of a small apartment in Monte Carlo.

In late July, Mr Fini broke from the People of Liberty party that he and Mr Berlusconi founded last year, taking enough deputies to deprive the prime minister of an assured lower-house majority.

From then on, Mr Fini was subjected to a relentless campaign by Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, focusing on allegations that his companion’s brother had bought a Monte Carlo flat, on the cheap, from Mr Fini’s former party.

The drama intensified last week when Lorenzo Francis, justice minister of the Caribbean offshore tax haven of Saint Lucia, confirmed that he was the author of a leaked private letter in which he indicated that Giancarlo Tulliani – brother of Mr Fini’s companion – was the owner of the offshore company that had acquired the flat.

Mr Tulliani has said he rents the flat and does not know the identity of its owner. In his video, Mr Fini – who has presented himself as a model of probity and ethics – admitted doubts and his own possible “naivety” and said he would step down as speaker if Mr Tulliani’s ownership was proven.

Mr Fini condemned the media campaign against him, and in a clear dig at Mr Berlusconi’s wealth, accused others of owning offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes.

Sergio Romano, commentator for the Corriere della Sera newspaper, summed up the mood of the nation watching this spectacle against a backdrop of economic crisis and a paralysed government.

“Rarely, in the history of the Italian republic, have our politicians enjoyed less credit,” he wrote. “Rarely have they been less respected and valued.”

Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the pro-opposition paper Repubblica, said the Berlusconi “war machine punishes dissent and protects friends”. He recalled that parliament voted last week to block the judiciary from using wiretaps against Nicola Cosentino, an MP from Mr Berlusconi’s party who denies charges of mafia association.

The wounded Mr Fini ended his video by confirming he was still ready to support Mr Berlusconi’s government programme as he had previously indicated.

The prime minister is due to present his programme to parliament on Wednesday, his 74th birthday, followed by a vote of confidence.

Although his centre-right coalition looks able to survive the vote, the deepening rift with Mr Fini has underscored the government’s vulnerability and raised expectations of early elections, possibly in the spring.

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