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Premier plans showdown with Speaker's group

Berlusconi wants to see if rebel MPs still support government

13 August, 18:09
Premier plans showdown with Speaker's group

(ANSA) - Rome, August 6 - Premier Silvio Berlusconi plans to force a group of breakaway MPs from his People of Freedom (PdL) party to show if they still support his government when parliament reconvenes in September, and resign if they don't, PdL House Whip Fabrizio Cicchitto said on Friday.

The government is "sailing without a compass" following Berlusconi's break last week with PdL co-founder, House Speaker Gianfranco Fini, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said earlier this week.

Fini and his 44 supporters have formed their own 'Future and Freedom' (FLI) groups in the House and Senate and abstained in a key no confidence vote against a government member this week, saving Berlusconi but proving they now have the power to topple him.

Cicchitto said Berlusconi would present a platform containing a "few points" when parliament opens after the August break and see whether he still had "a majority which will renew its confidence in the government".

If not, "at that point, there can be no alternative to elections," said Cicchitto.

However, if Berlusconi's government does fall President Giorgio Napolitano would be obliged by the Constitution to consult all the political players and decide whether a replacement can be found before calling early elections.

Cicchitto did not specify what the "few points" in the platform were but Milan's Corriere della Sera daily speculated that the premier would "seek confidence on four points", listing them as reforming the justice system, taxes, federalism and measures to boost the impoverished southern economy.

Meanwhile, a key breakaway MP said FLI would continue to support the government and would not seek an alliance with the centre-left opposition.

FLI House Whip Italo Bocchino told Turin's La Stampa daily the rebel faction "would never" vote against the government on a no confidence vote and hoped to negotiate with the PdL and its ally the Northern League to keep the majority afloat.

The country should not head to early elections and this will happen only if Berlusconi decides to force his hand, Bocchino added.

Furthermore, he said that if elections are held, FLI has no intention of seeking an alliance with the centre left or form a so-called 'third way' coalition with opposition centrist parties UDC, led by ex Berlusconi ally Pierferdinando Casini, and API, headed by former Rome mayor Francesco Rutelli. Berlusconi, whose tempestuous relations with Fini came to head in a public shouting match in April, threw the Speaker out of the party last Thursday.

Fini and his supporters promptly created their own parliamentary faction.

FLI groups have been set up within the centre-right camp but if 27 of its 34 House members were to vote against the government, it would go under.

The group's 10 senators are not enough to bring the government down in the Senate should they vote against it. Government Simplification Minister Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League heavyweight, said he would see Fini to discuss his intentions on the government's plans to devolve greater fiscal powers to Italy's 20 regions.

Fiscal federalism is the League's pet issue but as Fini has repeatedly called for caution on how it should be enacted, the issue would be a litmus test for the government's survival.

"I'll show him the decrees on fiscal federalism. That's where we'll see if this government can keep going or if we have to return to the polls," Calderoli told Corriere della Sera.

The minister said every effort should be made to patch things up because calling elections three years before the end of the legislature "over rifts in a party ...would be a serious responsibility as well as an incomprehensible one" for voters.

But centre-left opposition leader Pier Luigi Bersani said it was time for Berlusconi to go.

The leader of Democratic Party (PD) told Rome daily La Repubblica the country must "get rid of Berlusconi" because "democracy is at stake".

The crisis sparked by Fini's ouster is an opportunity to ensure Berlusconi's exit after 16 years in the political arena, he added.

Bersani said his party was ready to face elections but would prefer to keep the legislature alive by finding an alternative government to approve changes to the current electoral law which the centre-left says was tailored by a previous Berlusconi government to suit his own party and coalition.

The PD would consider a caretaker government headed by Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti because "anything which goes in the direction of change would be welcomed," he added.

Reacting to Bersani's call, Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said it was "unacceptable and of unprecedented violence".

Alfano said the PD is afraid of facing the electorate and hopes "to change the political situation determined by free elections" with "backroom power play".

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