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Berlusconi appeals to moderates to save him

December 13, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: December 13 2010

Silvio Berlusconi launched his defence of his centre-right government on the eve of critical votes in parliament by appealing to dissenting “moderates” to back the ruling coalition, which he presented as a guarantor of stability in a time of eurozone crisis.

Addressing the senate on Monday, the prime minister warned that defeat for the government would lead to early elections.

Politicians on both sides predicted that Mr Berlusconi would prevail in the senate confidence vote on Tuesday but that the outcome in the 630-member lower house could be as close as one or two votes following last month’s decision by Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament and a long-time ally, to pull his supporters out of the government.

Attention is focused on the health of three pregnant lawmakers and a handful of opposition delegates who have stunned their parties by suggesting they would back the government while rejecting allegations that they had been bribed by the Berlusconi camp.

Rome prosecutors last week opened an investigation into possible corruption, which the government has vigorously denied.

Umberto Bossi, leader of the rightwing Northern League, which is part of the ruling coalition, raised the possibility that Mr Berlusconi might resign and seek elections even if he survived in parliament. “It was a good speech, but one cannot govern with a majority of just one vote,” he told reporters.

Mr Berlusconi read carefully from his script in his 30-minute opening speech to the senate, appealing to the sense of responsibility of Mr Fini’s dissidents who had been voted into office with the prime minister two years ago.

Mr Berlusconi offered a new pact with “moderates”, promising reforms of the judiciary and the electoral system as well as fiscal federalism, and holding out the possibility of reshaping his government.

Weakened by controversies over his flamboyant private life and corruption scandals involving his closest allies, Mr Berlusconi anchored his speech around the need to maintain continuity and stability in a time of eurozone crisis.

“We guarantee stability in securing the interests of the country,” said Mr Berlusconi.

“Italy is no longer part of Europe’s economic problems. It is part of the solution,” he said, referring to Italy’s contributions to the EU bail-out of Greece and Ireland.

Acknowledging Italy’s high public sector debt, which is forecast to reach almost 120 per cent of gross domestic product by 2012, Mr Berlusconi said Italy had initially been targeted by market speculators but that prudent management of the government deficit had saved Italy from meeting the fate of others in the eurozone periphery.

“At first the ‘I’ in the acronym ‘Pigs’ referred to Italy. But it no longer does,” he told senators.

Mr Berlusconi is due to address the lower house later on Monday. Both chambers are scheduled to vote on Tuesday.

Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the opposition centrist UDC party and a former ally, urged Mr Berlusconi to resign ahead of the vote. Other opposition lawmakers said the prime minister’s only interest was to hang on to power to avoid two pending court cases where he is on trial for corruption and fraud – charges denied by Mr Berlusconi.

Should he lose either of the votes of confidence, Mr Berlusconi must present his resignation to Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, who will then open consultations to see if an alternative centre-right majority can be formed. Failing that Mr Napolitano would have to dissolve parliament and call elections within 70 days.

Opinion polls suggest elections would lead only to further uncertainty, with Mr Berlusconi’s coalition possibly winning in the lower house but not in the senate.

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