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Berlusconi under attack ahead of confidence vote

December 12, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: December 12 2010

Gianfranco Fini, leader of an internal revolt against Silvio Berlusconi, has launched a bitter attack against the Italian prime minister, accusing him of wanting to stay in power only to avoid prosecution in court.

Mr Fini’s broadside in a television interview on Sunday – delivered as the future of Italy’s centre-right government hangs by a thread – was seen by Mr Berlusconi’s camp as ending any possibility of the two former allies resolving their differences ahead of a parliament vote of no confidence against the government on Tuesday.

Mr Berlusconi was reported to be furious with his rival’s outburst. His spokesman denied that Mr Berlusconi made any comment on Mr Fini’s attack.

“I don’t trust his words any more,” said Mr Fini, current speaker of parliament who ended a 16-year alliance with Mr Berlusconi last month, taking with him more than 30 “rebels” in the lower house.

Mr Fini accused the 74-year-old prime minister of hanging on to power only to remain protected by a law passed by his government that allows him to avoid appearing in court in two trials in which he is accused of corruption and fraud. Mr Berlusconi has denied the charges and says he is the victim of a politically motivated judiciary.

Commentators say the outcome of Tuesday’s vote in the 630-member lower house is too close to call. Rome prosecutors are investigating accusations by opposition politicians that Mr Berlusconi’s camp has tried to bribe a handful of deputies to support the government. Government officials deny the corruption allegations.

Some media predicted on Sunday that Mr Berlusconi would scrape through but at the head of a weakened government incapable of surviving for long.

Should Mr Berlusconi lose on Tuesday then he must offer his resignation to Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, who will then sound out the possibility of finding an alternative majority – headed by the same prime minister or someone else. Failing that, Mr Napolitano will have to dissolve parliament and call general elections within 70 days.

Mr Fini and the centrist opposition UDC party led by Pier Ferdinando Casini say Italy is in no state to hold early elections in the middle of a eurozone crisis that could see debt markets target a weak government with a questionable ability to rein in spending and control a €1,800bn ($2,400bn) public sector debt.

Both politicians have said they are open to supporting a new government. In his television interview Mr Fini did not rule out backing a centre-right administration led by Giulio Tremonti, finance minister. Mr Casini has proposed Mario Draghi, central bank governor.

But commentators say Mr Berlusconi would prefer a more malleable successor than Mr Tremonti despite his good standing with the markets and a close relationship with Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, which has remained loyal to the coalition.

Sources close to Mr Draghi, whose sights are set on becoming the next head of the European Central Bank, say he has no intention of becoming prime minister.

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