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Undersecretary quits after causing turbulence for Renzi

Gentile accused of pressuring paper to pull story on son

03 March, 20:25
Undersecretary quits after causing turbulence for Renzi (By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome, March 3 - A new undersecretary quit on Monday after reports he attempted to stop a damaging newspaper report being published caused turbulence for Premier Matteo Renzi's young government. Senator Antonio Gentile, who was named transport and infrastructure undersecretary on Friday, bowed to calls to resign following reports he pressured local daily L'Ora di Calabria not to publish a piece about allegations his son was implicated in corruption in health-sector contracts.

In the end the whole edition of the newspaper, including the story about Gentile's son, did not go out on February 19, officially because of a technical problem at the printers, although many doubt this version of events.

Several members of Renzi's own centre-left Democratic Party (PD) had been called for Gentile to quit or be removed, along with several top Italian journalists.

And the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) was preparing a motion of no confidence in the Senator, a member of Interior Minister Angelino Alfano's New Centre Right (NCD) party, the junior partner in Renzi's coalition government. The NCD had been standing behind Gentile, who initially refused to step down, saying he was the victim of mudslinging. "I didn't exert influence on the publisher, on the journalist or on the editor of the newspaper," Gentile said Monday, adding that his son had received no notification that he is being probed. But later in the day Gentile announced his resignation, saying he had made the "tough decision" in the interests of his party and the country.

"I'm not under investigation for anything and yet, I have been meat for butchering," he said. A long series of corruption scandals have damaged the image of parties from all sides of Italy's political spectrum in recent years, so the row over Gentile was a potential threat to the ability of Renzi, the country's youngest premier at 39, to present himself as the face of change.

The government has also been hit by controversy about the appointment of culture undersecretary Francesca Barracciu, a PD member who is under investigation for allegedly embezzling party funds.

The Gentile question also caused tension on the eve of an important test for the government, with a bill for a new election law set to reach the floor of the Lower House Tuesday.

The bill, the fruit of a controversial agreement that Renzi struck with ex-premier and centre-right Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi in January, aims to replace the previous system that was declared unconstitutional in December and produced an inconclusive outcome to last year's general election.

It was the first reform Renzi set his sights on when he was sworn in 10 days ago after unseating his PD colleague Enrico Letta as premier. However, the NCD and parts of the PD want the new election system only to come into effect after the passing of other institutional reforms aimed at making Italy easier to govern and cutting the cost of the nation's political apparatus. Renzi also has an agreement with Berlusconi to change the Constitution to strip the Senate of its lawmaking powers to make it easier to pass legislation, turning the Upper House into a leaner assembly of local-government representatives, and to abolish the country's provincial governments and bring some powers back to central government from the regions.

FI, an opposition party, has said that if the election system is linked to the passing of other reforms, it will consider this a deal-breaker.