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Letta faces another confidence test

Aims to consolidate power amid rising anti-government sentiment

11 December, 20:38
Letta faces another confidence test (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, December 11 - Premier Enrico Letta's left-right coalition government survived a confidence motion in the Lower House and was expected to do the same in a late vote in the Senate Wednesday, hoping to consolidate its power after political reshuffling in recent weeks.

The votes were called after ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party pulled its support, leaving Letta with a more slender majority in parliament. The government prevailed in the House with 379 votes in favour, 212 against and two abstentions The government will collapse if it loses the Senate vote, expected by 22:00 Italian time. It is expected to survive thanks to the support of the New Centre Right (NCD) party, a group of pro-government moderates led by Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who split from Berlusconi loyalists last month.

Until then, Letta's coalition had been seen as extremely volatile since its unprecedented founding in April. Following inconclusive February elections, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano broke two months of parliamentary gridlock by giving a mandate to Letta, from the center-left Democratic Party (PD), to forge a coalition with the now-defunct People of Freedom (PdL) party of Berlusconi. The following months were marked by repeated threats from the ex-premier to sink the government, first for not moving quickly to scrap an unpopular property tax he campaigned against, then later over his own legal disputes, which ranged from tax fraud at his Mediaset group to allegations of paying for sex with an underage prostitute named Ruby and abusing his office in a lie to cover it up. Since Berlusconi relinquished his stake in the coalition and joined the opposition, the government is widely seen as more stable. But bringing down the government remains the central platform of his revived Forza Italia (FI) party.

Furthermore, Berlusconi blames the PD for not standing up for him when the Senate voted last month to oust him from the Senate, following his first-ever binding conviction this summer from the high Cassation Court for tax fraud on film rights at Mediaset. In addition to being banned from office, the media magnate was sentenced to four years in prison, commuted to one, which he has opted to spend performing community service. In some 20 years of legal convictions, the three-time premier has always claimed to be the victim of left-wing magistrates out to get him for political reasons. Now in his new role as opposition figure, Berlusconi is even attempting to court Beppe Grillo, head of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, and trying to "exploit", according to critics, a new 'Pitchfork' protest movement against graft, corruption and EU-mandated austerity which has brought together farmers, small businessmen, truckers and right-wing elements across the country.

"But I call on the government to respond right away. What are they waiting for? For something to happen?" Berlusconi said in a statement. "These people represent thousands of companies that are paying the price of the recessive policies of the past two years". Leaders of the movement, which has caused major disruptions to freight, transit, and commerce since launching protests on Monday, have vowed to mount a large-scale demonstration in Rome now if the government passes both confidence votes. The movement has been emboldened by Grillo, who amid protests has called on police to stop protecting elected officials, outraging politicians of all stripes. In a passive reference to the Pitchfork Movement and Grillo, Letta said Wednesday he "will not surrender to chaos". Instead, the premier said, "I will fight like a lion" to complete the agenda his government has prepared for 2014 and beyond, promising to replace a despised election law, reduce labour costs, and help the country achieve growth in gross domestic product (GDP) of 2% in 2015.