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Letta pledges to press on after confidence renewed

'Marks a new beginning' says premier, though protests persist

12 December, 18:31
Letta pledges to press on after confidence renewed (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, December 12 - Italian Premier Enrico Letta was emboldened Thursday after his government survived confidence votes in the Senate and House the night before. "Yesterday we took a commitment to a new beginning," said Letta.

"The country wants answers and businesses want the right tools to stop the gross domestic product (GDP) from plunging". 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. It survived as expected 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. In his 2014 agenda, Letta has promised actions aimed to introduce a new election law, reduce labour costs, and cut a national debt that has reached more than 130% of GDP and costs the Treasury as much as 90 billion euros in annual interest payments.

Although the European Union repeatedly calls on Italy to cut debt, Letta says the sheer costs of interest rates on that debt is the best argument for slashing it.

"Our national debt is colossal and we're attacking it...because it costs too much," he said heading into the votes Wednesday. "2014 will be the first year with the plus sign, after the darkness of the crisis," said Letta, amid applause from supporters in his coalition government. "In 2014, we will complete the reform of social safety nets, in a climate of social dialogue".

His policies should help the country achieve growth in gross domestic product (GDP) of 2% in 2015, added Letta, now unencumbered by an awkward alliance with Berlusconi since 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 plagued 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.

And Letta faces growing anti-governemnt sentiment throughout the country. Thursday marked the fourth day of demonstrations by the so-called Forconi (Pitchfork) Movement, which started as a group of austerity-weary farmers and truckers and has since grown to include anti-European protesters of all stripes, many of whom have been charged with looting and destroying public property in various cities around Italy. Among the group's most ardent supporters is Beppe Grillo, the head of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, who this week called on sympathetic police officers to refrain from protecting elected officials. The remarks were widely condemned, and were used by critics to argue the government opposition, including Berlusconi, are exploiting the movement to their own ends. "I call on the government to respond right away," said Berlusconi in a recent statement. "What are they waiting for? For something to happen?"