Berlusconi's party plunged into new chaos
Fresh talk of split after ex-premier indicted this week25 October, 17:01
Pro-government doves won a big tussle with so-called hawks in the party early this month when they staged a mutiny that forced Berlusconi to back down on a bid to scupper the left-right executive in the wake of the supreme court's decision to uphold a tax-fraud conviction against the ex-premier.
The two factions pulled back from a split then, but the rifts within the party bubbled up again this week when Berlusconi was indicted in Naples for allegedly bribing a Senator to change political sides.
The doves and hawks both believe that Berlusconi is the victim of a campaign of persecution by left-wing judges who are trying to wipe him off the political scene.
But the doves, led by Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, do not think the PdL should torpedo the government over Berlusconi's legal problems, as the country struggles to emerge from its longest recession in over two decades.
Berlusconi tried to bring the government down after Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) - which the PdL joined in a fragile, unnatural alliance in April to end two months of deadlock after February's inconclusive general election - backed moves for the 77-year-old to be stripped of his Senate seat after his tax fraud conviction became definitive.
As a result the three-time premier looks set to be ejected from parliament next month.
Berlusconi has requested to serve his one-year tax-fraud sentence - reduced from four years because of an amnesty - by doing community service, rather than house arrest. He is too old to actually go to jail.
He is also appealing against prison convictions for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to cover up the affair and for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap. A party meeting in Rome later on Friday could lead to a rupture between the doves, including all five of the PdL's ministers in Letta's cabinet, and the hawks, political pundits say.
At the meeting Berlusconi is set to outline how he intends to press forward with plans to abandon the PdL and create a revamped version of the party under its former name, Forza Italia.
Many moderates in the party have said they are against moving to a resuscitated Forza Italia. Alfano, who is also the PdL secretary - a role he would probably not have in the new Forza Italia - and the four other centre-right ministers met Berlusconi ahead of the planned party meeting Friday.
There are reports the doves may desert the party meeting and some PdL lawmakers have called for it to be postponed, given the tension.
PdL Senator Roberto Formigoni, one of the senior doves, said he would not attend it. "It is painful that a separation between Silvio Berlusconi and Angelino Alfano is developing," said Formigoni, the former governor of Lombardy. "Berlusconi is a point of reference for our history, but Alfano has an important role because he's our secretary.
"I fear this meeting represents revenge after the vote in the Senate of October 2," he added, referring to the confidence vote in which the PdL backed the government after the Alfano-led rebellion.
"Then we voted to support the government until 2015 on the basis of input from the former head of government (Berlusconi)".
Letta relies on the PdL's support to keep his executive afloat in the Upper House, but he may be able to get by in the case of a split in the centre-right party, if enough doves join the breakaway group.
The premier refused to comment on the turbulence at the end of an EU summit in Brussels, saying he was focusing on the questions he and the other European leaders addressed.