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Irish crisis could strengthen Berlusconi

November 28, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: November 28 2010  

Ireland’s crisis and fears of contagion are concentrating minds in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi’s scandal-hit government is stumbling towards early elections that not even the opposition really wants.

Facing a parliamentary vote of confidence which he risks losing on December 14, the 74-year-old prime minister is treading a fine line between warning his rivals of the dangers of holding elections at a time of eurozone turmoil, while reassuring markets that Italy’s finances are in better shape than those caught in the line of fire.

“A crisis of credibility, which would scare markets and international investors, would quickly take us along the same route as Greece and Ireland,” Mr Berlusconi said in a weekend video message to his supporters.

Mr Berlusconi can no longer depend on a majority in the lower house after Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the house and an ally for the past 16 years, pulled his small Future and Liberty party out of the centre-right coalition this month.

Although all sides are making a show of gearing up for elections next March, two years before schedule, opinion polls show that the main parties – Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty and the opposition Democrats – would be hit hard by abstentions and large numbers of voters moving to the extremes at either end of the political spectrum.

Given this uncertainty and Mr Fini’s recognition that his new breakaway party is not ready for elections, analysts say the prime minister is betting that he can use the cover of the eurozone crisis to persuade Mr Fini to rejoin the coalition, along with the Catholic UDC which split from Mr Berlusconi two years ago.

Even members of Mr Berlusconi’s own party, including Beppe Pisanu, former interior minister, are calling for the formation of a government of national unity, led by the prime minister or someone else, to launch urgently needed economic reforms.

Pressure is mounting on Mr Berlusconi on all fronts after months of paralysis that began with a spate of corruption investigations into his close political allies, exacerbated by controversies over his private life which took a new twist at the weekend.

Disclosures by a 17-year-old Moroccan dancer that the prime minister intervened personally when she was arrested in May on suspicion of theft were followed at the weekend by a television interview given by Nadia Macri, a 28 year-old escort.

Ms Macri told Sky Italia, a satellite broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, that she had been paid €5,000 ($6,620) to attend a party at Mr Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia where she saw girls she believed to be minors. She said Mr Berlusconi called her cellphone, introducing himself as: “I am the dream of Italians. I am the prime minister.”

Meanwhile students are taking to the streets against cuts and reforms of the education system, Neapolitans demonstrated on Sunday in anger at the return of thousands of tonnes of uncollected garbage on their streets and trade unions led a large crowd of workers in Rome on Saturday to protests against the government’s austerity programme.

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