Letta govt strengthened by confidence-vote victory
'No more blackmail,' PM says02 October, 20:04
(ANSA) - Rome, October 2 - Premier Enrico Letta emerged triumphant Wednesday after winning a key confidence vote that strengthened his right-left government against the threats that have shaken it on an almost daily basis since it was cobbled together after a two-month post-election stalemate in April.
"Enough with these threats to the government, it isn't going to fall in any case," said the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) premier, who was forced to put the executive through the confidence test by long-time-foe-turned-uneasy-ally Silvio Berlusconi, the charismatic and hitherto uncontested leader of the centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party.
"We're going to pick things up stronger and more cohesive than before," said Letta after Berlusconi made an embarrassing last-minute U-turn, after a surprisingly large pro-Letta rebellion by 25 PdL Senators, and voted for the government he had vowed to sink over the PD's insistence he be ousted from the Senate after a tax-fraud conviction.
Until now government action has been largely stymied by Berlusconi's diktats and the only headline-grabbing stand-out policy change has been the abolition of a hated property tax, a move Berlusconi vigorously campaigned for.
He ostensibly called for the government's end because it had failed to avert a 1% rise in VAT, although most analysts dismissed this as a smokescreen and a springboard to paint the PD as tax-and-spend leftists in an election campaign he was manoeuvering for, despite the strong opposition of President Giorgio Napolitano to calling a snap vote. Letta did not say whether the government would now try to find the money to reverse the VAT hike but ministers were reported to be working on it, the latest hypothesis being to use the proceeds of State assets sales and money seized from the mafia.
Whatever the policies he is set to push, Letta was visibly confident he now had the clout to get them past the parliamentary gauntlet.
"I think we 're going to make a real, true change of pace," he predicted.
He said the was "hyper-determined" to do what the Italian people expected of his grand-coalition government.
"We've wasted time, now let's get back to work, starting with the 2014 budget bill," he said.
The "heart" of the budget bill will be cutting labour taxes to boost growth, Letta said.
"Cutting taxes to give some respite to workers at last" and leaving pay-packets heavier will be combined with lowering taxes on employers, he said in a speech to the House, where he is expected to easily win his second confidence vote of the day.
Italians' purchasing power has sunk in the country's worst recession in 20 years and increasing numbers are swelling the ranks of the 'new poor', surveys show. While it was unclear whether the PdL would formally split into an unequivocally pro-government group and Berlusconi's already announced retooled version of his first party, Forza Italia, the political win for Letta was an unquestionable triumph for his unflappable steady-as-she-goes course through the stormy coalition waters.
Buoyed by the success, Letta said the "clarification" provided by the confidence vote would bolster support for an agenda lasting at least another year to steer the economy out of recession, stoke growth, cut political costs and reform a dysfunctional electoral law.
"Today is a historic day, we have clearer conditions that let us look far ahead," the premier said.
The Italian economy will grow by at least 1% in the coming year, he predicted.
While the economic recovery will be "gradual," Letta said, "now we have the goal of 1% growth in 2014 and higher (growth) in the years to come".
Letta also promised that Italy will respect European fiscal constraints and remain below the threshold of 3% of debt to GDP.
Uncertainty reigned on the other side of the fence amid widespread perceptions Berlusconi had overreached in demanding the end of a government many conservatives think must keep working to nurture a timid economic turnaround and enact structural political and economic reforms - including addressing Berlusconi's long-held conviction that an over-independent and allegedly sectarian judiciary must undergo some kind of reform.
The so-called 'doves' who may form their own splinter group are as keen as Letta to change an electoral law that prevents voters picking MPs and tends to produce inconclusive results, as it did in February - but they also insist they are just as concerned about overhauling the justice system Berlusconi blames for his many legal tangles, which include a conviction for sex with an underage prostitute.
But Letta insisted the three-time premier's judicial cases had to be kept separate from his government's action.
"I don't deal with justice," he stressed.
The PdL dissidents were reported to be meeting Wednesday evening to discuss forming a breakaway group.
The meeting was expected to debate creating new groups in the Senate and House - the subject of much discussion in recent days as it became clear PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano had shifted from his ultra-loyalty to Berlusconi and disapproved of moves to bring down Premier Enrico Letta's government.
Alfano, who has been serving as deputy premier and interior minister in the coalition cabinet, has been rumoured to be a potential leader of the dissident group after he encouraged the resounding confidence vote that saved Letta's coalition.
However, despite reports that a caucus name request had been filed as "People of Freedom - Alfano Secretary', Alfano was relatively muted after the vote, leaving other PdL senior officials to comment on planning for a new political group.
"The groups will be independent," said Roberto Formigoni, a PdL Senator and supporter of a new movement. He said 25 Senators and 25 MPs were poised to join two new caucuses.
But others were playing down the prospect.
Gaetano Quagliariello, another PdL senator and Letta's constitutional affairs minister, said he knew nothing about such a plan.
"It's an initiative of parliamentarians I do not know," he said flatly.
And Nunzia De Girolamo, agriculture minister, was even less enthusiastic.
"I remain in the PdL," she told reporters, stating she had no intention of joining any splinter group.
PdL Senate Whip Renato Schifani told reporters that he is "firmly opposed to a diaspora" in his party.
Other Berlusconi loyalists were moving quickly Wednesday to sign a document confirming their support for the PdL and a revamped Forza Italia party, the media tycoon's first party which he relaunched for the next elections last week.
This increased speculation the PdL could break in two, with a bigger and more hardline force, Forza Italia, led by eminence grise Berlusconi from outside parliament, and a smaller and more moderate one, headed by Alfano under the PdL banner, seen as more in touch with the European People's Party (EPP), the centre-right bloc the PdL belongs to in the European Parliament.
There has been talk that the PdL renegades would form a group with tighter links to the EPP, some of whose members have fretted in the past about Berlusconi's presence. Another senior PdL figure, the party's former Lower House whip Fabrizio Cicchitto, said Tuesday that the decision to withdraw the party's ministers from government was a mistake.
Alfano was quoted ahead of an evening meeting with Berlusconi, aimed at averting the split, as saying the rift in the party had been "inevitable" but was not "irreparable".
Unnamed PdL sources said "they're going to throw the brakes on creating the autonomous groups".
The Italian stock market hit a two-year high on Letta's win, the bond spread between Italy and Germany narrowed considerably, and the European Union hailed Italy's continued political stability while stressing it did not comment on domestic politics.
Berlusconi's ban from the Senate is expected to be sanctioned in mid-October, although the PdL is still insisting the 2012 anti-corruption law that mandates it is being applied retroactively and therefore against the Italian Constitution.
The 77-year-old billionaire must choose by October 14 whether to serve the remaining year of his four-year sentence - cut because of an amnesty - under house arrest or doing community service.