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Berlusconi in struggle to survive vote

December 7, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: December 7 2010

Italy’s politicians have started scrambling for votes ahead of a parliamentary session next week that could bring an early end to Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition even as his allies insist that the government has enough support to survive.

“We are convinced we have the numbers in both houses,” Maurizio Gasparri, Senate leader of the prime minister’s People of Liberty party, said on Tuesday.

On paper, however, Mr Berlusconi can no longer rely on a majority in the lower house in the votes on December 14 following the defection of more than 30 deputies who have joined Gianfranco Fini, a former ally, in their breakaway Future and Liberty party.

Parliamentary sources said the outcome would depend on how many deputies in the 630-member lower house turned up to vote. If just a few opposition delegates stay away – but one member of the centre-left Democratic party says she will show up despite being in the late stages of pregnancy – then Mr Berlusconi might just scrape through, though without an overall majority.

Antonio Di Pietro, former anti-corruption magistrate and leader of the opposition Italy of Values party, has accused allies of Mr Berlusconi of playing “dirty games and offering favours to deputies and senators in exchange for their vote”.

Mr Berlusconi has insis­ted repeatedly that if he loses he will seek elections, two years ahead of schedule, dismissing talk of forming a government that would include Mr Fini’s rebels and others.

Paolo Bonaiuti, government spokesman, dismissed as “pure fantasy” a report in La Repubblica, a pro-opposition daily, claiming that Mr Berlusconi was considering a plan B in which he would hand over the premiership to a trusted ally – possibly his undersecretary Gianni Letta – and take up another ministry himself, perhaps foreign affairs.

The Senate was preparing on Tuesday night to vote on the government’s 2011 budget, one of the last items of business before next Tuesday’s votes of confidence in both houses which will follow an address to parliament by Mr Berlusconi on Monday.

As debate continued, students and workers protesting against cuts in education and culture clashed with police outside Milan’s La Scala opera house as the new season prepared to begin with a performance of Wagner’s Valkyrie.

The budget, the first stage of a three-year austerity programme, was expec­ted to be passed. But opposition senators attacked Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, for lack of rigour in containing the state deficit through his planned public spending cuts.

A study by the Nens think-tank, led by Vincenzo Visco, former centre-left finance minister, said Mr Tremonti would need a further correction of up to €8bn ($11bn) to meet the government’s target of reducing the deficit from 5.0 per cent this year to 3.9 per cent by the end of 2011.

The report said Mr Tremonti was overestimating GDP growth and tax incomes and it would not be surprising if Italian Treasury bonds were subject to “new tensions” following the widening of spreads over German bonds to record highs last week.

Mr Berlusconi accuses his former allies of pushing Italy towards elections at a time of market uncertainty.

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