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Berlusconi survives vote, but dependant on rebels

September 29, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: September 29 2010

Silvio Berlusconi won some breathing space for his centre-right government after a stormy day-long debate in parliament. The outcome, however, underlined the fragility of Italy’s ruling coalition, raising doubts over the prime minister’s ability to survive a full five-year term.

Facing his sternest test since his election victory in April 2008 and furiously denying opposition accusations that he had bought wavering deputies, the prime minister won a hard-fought vote of confidence on Wednesday night by 342 votes to 275 in the 630-member lower house.

Mr Berlusconi might have succeeded in avoiding snap elections while his ratings are falling, but the result fell short of his hopes. A breakdown of the votes indicated the government’s absolute majority in future was likely to depend on the continued support of more than 30 rebels of the People of Liberty party led by Gianfranco Fini, his long-time ally turned critic.

Mr Fini’s supporters declared their backing for the government’s programme as laid out in broad terms by Mr Berlusconi, 74. But their intention to go ahead and form their own party was seen as a first step towards early elections, possibly next spring. Umberto Bossi, leader of the rightwing Northern League in the ruling coalition, reinforced expectations that the government would not see out its full term, saying the numbers were “limited” and that a tough road lay ahead.

Mr Fini, speaker of parliament, was in effect expelled from the party he cofounded with Mr Berlusconi last year after accusing the prime minister of dictating policies in his own personal interests and running the party like his media empire.

Since then, newspapers owned by or close to the Berlusconi family have waged a relentless campaign against Mr Fini, accusing his former party and the brother of his partner of being involved in a shady property deal in Monte Carlo. Mr Fini has said he would resign as speaker if the accusations were proved.

After months of bitter exchanges, Mr Berlusconi adopted a more conciliatory tone in parliament, calling for an end to a period of “hate” in Italy and warning that the country could not risk a period of instability at a time of global economic crisis.

“We stand before a delicate moment, whose outcome depends on the sense of responsibility of each and everyone, on the ability of the political system to give priority to the common good and national interest,” Mr Berlusconi said.

The prime minister saved his harshest words for the judiciary, declaring his intention to pass reforms that would put a stop to what he called its abuse of power in undermining the executive.

A critical moment approaches in mid-December when the Constitutional Court is due to rule on a law passed by parliament that absolves Mr Berlusconi from the need to appear in two court cases against him.

Should the ruling go against the prime minister, Mr Fini’s dissidents are unlikely to back further legislation to protect him. Mr Berlusconi’s 55-minute speech met opposition jeers when he laid out plans to develop Italy’s poorer south by completing a long-delayed highway that has become a byword for corruption and mafia infiltration, and a controversial bridge to Sicily.

Mr Fini called repeatedly for order when Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the small opposition Italy of Values party, denounced Mr Berlusconi as a “raper of democracy”.

Italy alters growth forecasts

Italy raised its forecast for growth this year but trimmed its view for 2011, leaving its three-year deficit reduction programme on track, a government insider said on Wednesday, Reuters reports from Rome.

The Treasury predicts 1.2 per cent growth this year, up from a previous estimate of 1 per cent and 1.3 per cent next, down from 1.5 per cent previously, according to the insider. The Treasury expects 2 per cent growth in 2012.

The country is emerging from its worst postwar recession and the forecasts underline the uncertainty facing the eurozone’s third largest economy. Italy maintained its budget deficit forecasts at 5 per cent of gross domestic product in 2010, 3.9 per cent next year and 2.7 per cent in 2012, the insider said.

Confindustria, the employers’ federation, sees growth in 2011 of 1.3 per cent but the Bank of Italy forecasts just 1 per cent this year and next.

Data have suggested that recovery is slowing in Italy with weak industrial output in both June and July.

In spite of huge public debt, Italy has so far avoided the turmoil that has swept across other indebted countries such as Greece and Spain. The Treasury forecasts public debt at 118.4 per cent of gross domestic product this year.

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