Berlusconi pushes to topple Italy govt despite dissent

Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives at the lower house of parliament in Rome, Sept 30, 2013. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday pressed ahead with plans to topple Prime Minister Enrico Letta but looked increasingly isolated as t
Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives at the lower house of parliament in Rome, Sept 30, 2013. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday pressed ahead with plans to topple Prime Minister Enrico Letta but looked increasingly isolated as top aides from his party said they would support the government. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME (AFP) - Italy's Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday pressed ahead with plans to topple Prime Minister Enrico Letta but looked increasingly isolated as top aides from his party said they would support the government.

"Even though I understand the risks that I am taking on, I have decided to put an end to the Letta government," Berlusconi said in an emotional letter sent to the Catholic weekly magazine Tempi.

Berlusconi accused Mr Letta of allowing his "political assassination through judicial means" - a reference to his criminal conviction for tax fraud in August which triggered the current crisis.

In an apparent break with the flamboyant billionaire tycoon, his top aide, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, said lawmakers from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party should back Letta in a confidence vote on Wednesday.

"I am firmly convinced that our party as a whole should vote confidence in Letta tomorrow," Mr Alfano, who is also the national secretary of the PDL, said following marathon talks with Berlusconi.

Mr Letta has refused to accept the resignations of five ministers from Berlusconi's party, Italy's Ansa news agency reported on Tuesday, citing a close government source.

Berlusconi announced he was withdrawing the ministers from the fragile coalition presided by Mr Letta on Saturday, who said it was a "crazy and irresponsible" act.

Alfano's comments sparked a spike in the Italian stock market as investors appeared increasingly confident that Mr Letta's government would not fall.

Milan's index closed 3.11 per cent higher on Tuesday after closing 1.2 per cent lower on Monday.

Berlusconi has dominated Italian politics for much of the past 20 years and once commanded absolute loyalty from his ranks. The dissent is seen by many analysts as a major blow for him.

Another once-loyal supporter, Mr Carlo Giovanardi, a senator from Berlusconi's party, said 40 PDL senators were ready to vote for the government, which would hand Mr Letta a large majority.

"We are staying in the PDL. The others can leave. We want to remain a moderate force," he said.

Mr Fabrizio Cicchitto, a deputy from the party, said: "Making the government fall would be a mistake".

Mr Cicchitto said any new government formed would be "hostile to the PDL" and would be a boon for Mr Letta's centre-left Democratic Party, while elections in November would be "impractical".

The coalition was only formed in April after a two-month deadlock between left and right following February elections which were very narrowly won by Mr Letta's centre-left Democratic Party.

Mr Alfano has already said he could be "pro-Berlusconi in a different way" and other ministers have spoken out against the decision to make them resign, apparently taken without consulting them.

Analysts have warned that Mr Letta's government will necessarily be weaker with Berlusconi in opposition even if it does win Wednesday's confidence vote with support from rebel lawmakers who break ranks with Berlusconi.

If he loses the vote and if President Giorgio Napolitano does not manage to cobble together a new government that would have parliamentary support, elections will have to be called - a worst-case scenario seen by analysts as unlikely.

Italy is trying to shake off a two-year recession and is struggling to meet a public deficit target of 2.9 per cent for this year, which most analysts say it will not manage to attain.

The dangers were underscored with new data released on Tuesday that showed the unemployment rate had gone back up to its highest-ever level of 12.2 per cent in August from 12.1 per cent in July.

Stefano Folli, a columnist for business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, said Berlusconi appeared to be veering wildly between hardline and moderate positions on the government "without a compass".

Writing for La Stampa daily, columnist Michele Brambilla said: "It's not just Berlusconi's leadership that is in play and who might or might not dare to dissent with him - Italy is in play."