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Berlusconi vulnerable to rivals

October 12, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: October 12 2010

With opinion polls confirming that Silvio Berlusconi’s fractured government is losing its grip, party leaders are gearing up for possible elections next spring that could finally bring the curtain down on the billionaire prime minister’s long domination of Italian politics.

Rivals warn of underestimating his ability to bounce back – but Mr Berlusconi’s apparent vulnerability was emphasised on Tuesday when Paolo Bonaiuti, government spokesman, forcefully denied comments by Alberto Zangrillo, the prime minister’s doctor, that he was “at his limits” and needed a week’s rest after minor surgery to his wrist.

Mr Berlusconi’s ability to see out the second half of his five-year term is hostage to the conditional support of Gianfranco Fini, his long-time ally-turned-adversary. On Monday the latter told a group of reporters, including the Financial Times, that the government could soon fall over its efforts to reform the judiciary.

Mr Fini reiterated that his new party, Future and Liberty, would use its balance of power in the lower house to block what he called Mr Berlusconi’s unethical plan to cancel a backlog of thousands of pending trials, including two cases against the prime minister.

Asked if Italy was headed for elections next March, Mr Fini, speaker of the lower house, said: “I don’t know.” But he made clear he was not in a hurry to bring down the government. “We live in a tunnel where the election campaign never ends. There is a great weariness among Italians with this constant election campaign.”

He also warned Italy could ill-afford a political vacuum, struggling with debt close to 120 per cent of gross domestic product, with Greece the highest in the European Union.

Speculation focused on whether Mr Fini, a 58-year-old former neo-fascist who has undergone a long political transformation towards the middle ground, will lead an emerging alliance of centrist parties known as the “third pole”.

Mr Fini insisted that this was not his intention and that he remained committed to preserving a “bi­polar” system.

Political people in talks to form a new centrist coalition say that, in the event of elections, Mr Fini would join forces with the predominantly Catholic UDC, led by Pier Ferdinando Casini, and smaller parties. Talks also involve participation of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, head of carmaker Fiat’s Ferrari unit, who has to date denied the intention to enter politics.

Italo Bocchino, leader of Mr Fini’s faction in parliament, suggested on Tuesday that Mr Montezemolo could be an “option” as a leader of a future alliance of Mr Fini, the UDC and Sicily’s small Movement for Autonomy party formerly allied with Mr Berlusconi.

Opinion polls suggest that in spite of Mr Berlusconi’s sliding popularity, his People of Liberty party – which he co-founded with Mr Fini last year – would emerge as the single largest force in the lower house with about 29 per cent of the vote, followed by the centre-left opposition Democrats, in even greater internal disarray than the government, with some 25 per cent.

But polls suggest Mr Berlusconi would fall short in the Senate, where the as-yet hypothetical centrist alliance would hold the balance of power.

In such a scenario, political people said, Mr Fini and Mr Casini would offer to support the government but on condition that Mr Berlusconi retire from politics.

Leading the field of alternative prime ministers is Giulio Tremonti, finance minister who has strong ties with the rightwing Northern League currently allied with Mr Berlusconi.

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