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Letta says govt won't be punchball, rebuts Berlusconi

Berlusconi says will back govt 'as long as it keeps promises'

19 September, 20:09
Letta says govt won't be punchball, rebuts Berlusconi (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, September 19 - Premier Enrico Letta said Thursday that his unprecedented right-left government "is not a punchball" for attacks from his uneasy ally, ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's retooled Forza Italia party.

Letta, who defended the judiciary from Berlusconi's contention it has been consistently biased in 20 years of legal battles that culminated in a tax-fraud conviction and upcoming Senate ban, pledged that from now on the executive will "play in attack" amid the ongoing political turmoil that threatens to bring it down. "I don't have Jo Condor written on my forehead," he added, referring to an old TV commercial cartoon character who suffered many misadventures.

Letta firmly dismissed Berlusconi's assertion he is the victim of persecution by left-wing magistrates after the centre-right leader's tax-fraud conviction was upheld by the supreme court. "We are in a State of the rule of law, there are no persecutions," Letta told a press conference for the presentation of a drive to attract foreign investment to Italy. "It would be paradoxical if, when we are presenting a plan to attract investments, the message that Italy is a country in which the rule of law does not work came across," added the premier.

Letta's left-right government, cobbled together after a two-month post-election stalemate in April, is in danger of collapsing in the fallout of the supreme court's decision last month to uphold a four-year term against Berlusconi - three of which have been commuted because of an amnesty. On Wednesday Berlusconi released a video message blasting magistrates before a Senate panel took the first step towards stripping the ex-premier of his parliamentary seat after the supreme court ruling, with the vital contribution of votes from Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD). Letta, whose executive needs the support of Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party - until Wednesday People of Freedom (PdL) - to stay afloat, called for the judiciary to be respected when asked about Wednesday's video message. "In Italy the rule of law and the autonomy of the judiciary work and we want to respect this," said Letta.

Berlusconi later inaugurated the new headquarters of Forza Italia, in a picturesque Roman piazza.

He said he would continue to back the government, even outside parliament while serving the remaining year of his sentence in community service or under house arrest - but as long as it sticks to its promises.

"We will stay in government up until it carries through the (promised) measures and upholds commitments," he said, referring to the complete abolition of a property tax he campaigned for and the avoidance of a slated rise in VAT, along with a raft of business-friendly measures.

But the strains between the PD and Forza Italia (FI) were highlighted when FI's House spokesperson Mara Carfagna said Letta was guilty of "conniving" with the judiciary by denying the existence of biased magistrates.

"Denying the existence of ideological magistrates who pursue political ends with the tools of justice is connivance," said Carfagnia, a former equal opportunities minister.

Berlusconi got support from his old friend Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who said Italian magistrates "wouldn't have touched him with a finger if he'd been gay".

Putin told an international forum on Russia that Berlusconi's legal woes, including a sentence for paying for sex with an underage prostitute called Ruby, were due to his "living with women".

Berlusconi is appealing the Ruby verdict, a case that revealed he was maintaining a stable of young women to attend alleged sex parties.

He has been involved in other sex scandals including one involving an escort who secretly taped him before and after having sex on a luxurious bed given to him by Putin.

In November 2010, amid a media frenzy about Ruby, then premier Berlusconi defended himself from allegations of impropriety in his private life by saying it was "better to like pretty women than be gay".

Rebutting claims that he abused his office to have teenage Moroccan belly dancer Ruby released after accusations of theft, on the grounds that she was, as he mistakenly thought, former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak's niece, the premier said: "I have a gruelling work schedule and if I happen to look pretty girls in the face now and then, well then, it's better to be a fan of pretty women than to be gay".

Italian gay groups protested.

Launching the new Forza Italia, Berlusconi reireated that he was being treated "unfairly" but added that a government crisis would be harmful to Italy, struggling with record unemployment and showing small signs of emerging from its longest recession in 20 years.

Some Italian commentators say Berlusconi has not pulled the plug on the government now because of opinion polls, but will do so as soon as polls show this would favour another Forza Italia election win, probably as soon as the electoral law widely blamed for February's inconclusive result is changed.

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