Govt hanging by thread as Berlusconi row escalates
Senate panel vote could sink right-left coalition10 September, 17:27
(ANSA) - Rome, September 10 - Italy's unprecedented experiment with a right-left government of long-time foes was hanging by a thread Tuesday with both sides trying to blame the other for a looming demise linked to ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's first definitive criminal conviction.
Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party repeated that Democratic Party (PD) Premier Enrico Letta's government will fall if a Senate panel votes late Tuesday against petitions it has presented objecting to a move to strip the centre-right leader of his parliamentary seat.
The panel is looking at ejecting three-time premier Berlusconi from the Senate after the supreme court last month upheld a four-year tax-fraud conviction - three years of which have been commuted due to an amnesty - making it definitive.
On Monday a PdL Senator presented three motions calling for the decision on Berlusconi's parliamentary status to be put on hold. A fourth was presented Tuesday.
Berlusconi risks losing his Senate seat under the terms of an anti-corruption law approved in 2012, which the PdL says is unconstitutional. After a heated meeting on Monday of the panel, on which members of the centre-right PdL are a minority, its chair said a vote on the three petitions would take place late Tuesday.
The PdL says this means the panel is rushing a decision on highly technical legal matters. The PD has repeatedly said it intends to vote for Berlusconi to be stripped of his status as Senator on the panel and so have representatives of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S).
The PD and the PdL are traditional enemies but they were forced to form a grand coalition in April to make Letta's executive possible and end two months of deadlock after February's inconclusive general election.
The PdL has said it will be impossible for it to continue the alliance if the PD votes for its leader to be turfed out of parliament. "If the Democratic Party, together with the M5S, decides this evening to vote against the petitions, the Democratic Party will cause the Letta government to fall," PdL House whip Renato Brunetta told state broadcaster RAI.
"Either the panel is a body of jurisprudence, in which case it should take its time to have doubts, and read and evaluate the documents; or it behaves in a political way. "If it decides to behave in a political way and take Berlusconi out of political life, in a political way, outside the realm of the law and the Constitution, outside the doubts that have been expressed, it is obviously taking a political decision.
"This would break the alliance and, at this stage, the PD would send the Letta government packing". Berlusconi's No.2, Angelino Alfano, the PdL secretary who is both deputy premier and interior minister, ratcheted up the pressure by saying: "We are horrified by the behaviour of the Democratic Party on the panel yesterday".
"They prefer to put the country on its knees in order to eliminate a long-standing enemy, via judicial means". A full Senate vote is required to make the ban effective but the PdL says it will not come to that if the PD votes against Berlusconi on the panel.
The PdL claims the anti-corruption law is being applied retroactively in Berlusconi's case, although it became effective before his definitive conviction for fraud on film rights for his Mediaset empire on August 1. The PdL says the offences for which Berlusconi was convicted took place before the law was passed, and so it is being applied retroactively, which they say is against the Italian Constitution. The PD has dismissed arguments from jurists sympathetic to the PdL as "quibbling" and says the law must be applied to Berlusconi as it would be to anyone else. Berlusconi is appealing to Italy's Constitutional Court, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice against the ban from the tax-fraud conviction, which he blames, like his many other cases, on persecution by magistrates he says are left-wing.
Letta said Monday that he was hopeful the PdL would "decide for the best" and not sink the government, with the country still not out of its longest recession in over two decades.
But the premier also warned at the weekend that he would not "tread water" at the helm of government and would only continue if the parties gave him enough support to effectively wield power.
In a sign of increasing financial-market concern, the Spanish 10-year bond's spread level dropped below that of its Italian equivalent for the first time since March 2012. Italy's spread had been significantly lower than Spain's, but the gap has narrowed in recent months after the eurozone debt crisis was apparently brought under control.
The Bono has overtaken the BTP, still both lagging behind Germany's gilt-edged Bund, amid the rising uncertainty over the Italian government's future.
There are two main scenarios if Berlusconi pulls the plug.
One is a second Letta government with rebels from comedian Beppe Grillo's M5S and, perhaps, a handful of disaffected conservatives, giving the PD the new majority it would need in the Senate.
Brunetta, the PdL whip, said he had it on good authority that 20 M5S members were ready to jump ship after becoming tired of Grillo's refusal to work with any other party.
The other scenario is a snap election.
The Letta government has been unable to reform Italy's dysfunctional electoral law and a new vote is likely to produce another inconclusive result, experts say.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has set his face against calling fresh elections and threatened to resign if he is forced to do so.
He has said a premature end to the Letta executive would kill the green shoots of recovery and halt a drive for essential reforms.