Alfano says Berlusconi party risks becoming extremist
Deputy premier leads doves against hawks04 November, 19:02
(ANSA) - Rome, November 4 - Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano says there is a risk of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right party becoming extremist.
He also believes a question mark raised over Berlusconi's continued position as undisputed leader amid legal tangles could be solved by holding primaries.
Alfano, until recently touted as Berlusconi's dauphin, is the leader of pro-government doves within the party who have clashed with Berlusconi and his loyalists over whether to bring down Premier Enrico Letta's grand-coalition government.
The minister was recently stripped of his role as secretary of the People of Freedom (PdL) party after Berlusconi announced he was launching a new party under the PdL's former name, Forza Italia - and after Alfano led an unprecedented rebellion against the centre right's charismatic leader to keep Letta in the saddle.
"Our party has always been a big, prevalently moderate movement," Alfano said in excerpts of an interview contained in a book by broadcast journalist Bruno Vespa that is set to be published this week.
"It's not a good thing that it ends up in the hands of extremists. "Berlusconi isn't one, but there's a risk of it taking that direction in the practical, day-to-day management of the communications".
PdL hawks include MPs who have neoliberal economic views, tough stances on immigration and opposition to European Union diktats on Italian economic policy.
The doves are, as their names implies, more moderate and centrist on a slew of policy points.
The main issue they stand firmly together on is to back Berlusconi's fight for judicial reform because of an alleged witch hunt by leftwing elements in the judiciary.
Another leading dove, House Whip Fabrizio Cicchitto, chimed into the debate Monday by saying that the famously hands-on entrepreneur Berlusconi, often accused of running a party of yes-men beholden to him for their political existence, actually invited internal debate and the idea of North Korean-style imposition of absolute conformity was "anathema" to him.
"Forza Italia should be a party in which it is possible to have a free and open debate, seeing as how it aims to be a liberal party, and therefore should be so in its political and programmatic initiatives and, all the more so, in its internal arrangements," said Cicchitto, a one-time ultra-loyalist who like Alfano has migrated towards more independent thinking.
"I don't think Berlusconi would like a North-Korean-style party that some (PdL members) would like to build with a mystic spirit and authoritarian practices, evidently not realising what kind of world we're living in".
On the issue of primaries, Alfano said he remains in favour of the fractious party holding them the next time general elections are held.
The PdL was set to hold primaries before February's general election but it called them off when three-time premier and media magnate Berlusconi opted to come out of political retirement and lead the campaign.
In the event, he led a barnstorming recovery to place a narrow second to Letta's Democratic Party (PD), which had been regarded as a shoo-in to lead the country.
Berlusconi is expected to be ejected from parliament this month after a tax-fraud conviction against him was upheld by the supreme court.
His other legal problems include two separate convictions, which he is appealing, for sex with an underage prostitute and publishing an illegal wiretap; and an indictment for bribing a Senator to switch sides. The 77-year-old has said he will continue to lead his party and be "personally committed" in a future election campaign, although the one-year tax-fraud conviction - which he is expected to serve doing community service - will probably make him ineligible to stand as a candidate.
"My mind has not changed since the end of 2012, when we launched the primaries," said Alfano in other excerpts of the interview with Vespa.
"At the next elections, our candidate should be chosen via primaries that are as open as possible, with the participation of the highest number of supporters possible".
One of the most vociferous hawks, Senator Anna Maria Bernini, shot back: "Talking about primaries in PdL-Forza Italia now is a provocative and untimely exercise, as if the leadership were up for grabs, when it is firmly in the hands of Silvio Berlusconi.
"It would be really serious," she said, "if a part of the PdL thought there was a succession problem and we should go beyond Berlusconi".
The loyalists' leader, former minister Raffaele Fitto, said "the final decision will always be Berlusconi's".
Alfano, who met Italian President Giorgio Napolitano Monday afternoon, was set to have talks with Berlusconi at his villa outside Milan Monday night.
Alfano's doves forced Berlusconi to back down on a bid to scupper the left-right administration last month with a mutiny that ended with the ex-premier making an embarrassing U-turn and opting to back a confidence motion in it to avoid the party breaking up.
Berlusconi had forced the confidence vote by insisting he could no longer work with the PD because of its stance on applying the law, and therefore the office ban, after the tax-fraud conviction.
The party is still in danger of splitting, although the hawks and doves are trying to smooth their differences, working from their shared indignation at Berlusconi's alleged judicial persecution.
A showdown is expected to come at the National Council meeting on December 8 - the same day that Florence's young and charismatic mayor, Matteo Renzi, is likely to be elected as the PD's leader.