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Berlusconi thrown a lifeline

November 8, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Perugia, Published: November 8 2010

Weakened by the latest disclosures surrounding his unconventional private life and with his coalition riven by infighting, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, has been offered a temporary lifeline by one of his leading rivals.

Gianfranco Fini, a disaffected former ally whose new party has the numbers to vote down the government, challenged the centre-right prime minister on Sunday to “have the courage to resign”.

But in a speech to several thousand supporters at the opening convention of his Future and Liberty party in Perugia, Mr Fini then went on to offer Mr Berlusconi a way out of his crisis, proposing that he return at the head of a reshaped coalition government with a fresh programme.

If not, then Mr Fini warned he would pull out of the government.

A former neo-fascist and foreign minister, Mr Fini had been a close ally of Mr Berlusconi for 16 years until the ruling People of Liberty party, which he co-founded with the prime minister last year, evicted him for dissent in July. Since then he has been a thorn in the side of Mr Berlusconi without going so far as to remove the coalition’s majority in parliament.

Mr Fini’s speech had been eagerly anticipated in the wake of the latest scandal, involving Mr Berlusconi’s connections with a teenage Moroccan nightclub dancer detained by police in May and released after the prime minister made a phone call on her behalf. Mr Berlusconi denies pressing police to obtain her release.

Many of Mr Fini’s supporters had hoped for the more radical step of “unplugging” the government immediately, thereby forcing early elections or the formation of a caretaker government. But aides to Mr Fini said the new centre-right party was not ready to go to the polls.

Mr Berlusconi conferred with senior aides in Milan after Mr Fini’s speech. Politicians said they believed he was considering a reshuffle of his cabinet.

One of the most controversial cabinet figures is Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, who has angered several ministers with his budget cuts and is also seen as a rival to Mr Berlusconi. But his removal would risk antagonising financial markets worried about the sustainability of public debts. Moreover Mr Tremonti is close to the rightwing Northern League, whose role in the coalition is vital to Mr Berlusconi’s survival.

Despite the pressure to quit – which has come from all areas of society, ranging from Italian bishops to the centre-left opposition – Mr Berlusconi appears ready to battle on, knowing none of his serious rivals will take the risk of going to elections soon.)

With some cheering supporters openly weeping at Sunday’s rally, Mr Fini’s choreographed performance over two days was tinged with nostalgia for values such as nation, family, legality, work and morality. Italy is “in moral decline”, Mr Fini warned as he presented himself as a modernising leader of the centre-right. But for some younger activists, a giant photo-montage of Mr Fini before a crowd chanting “Fini! Fini!” was too reminiscent of the Mussolini fascist era, which Mr Fini has renounced.

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