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Berlusconi relaunches Forza Italia, party risks split

Confirms faith in Alfano, says will keep supporting govt

25 October, 20:48
Berlusconi relaunches Forza Italia, party risks split (By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome, October 25 - Silvio Berlusconi on Friday pressed ahead with moves to relaunch his party under its former name, Forza Italia, despite speculation this could lead to a split within the centre-right group.

A meeting of bigwigs of the People of Freedom (PdL) party agreed to suspend the group's activities in view of the arrival of the new Forza Italia, a statement said. This move also entails the suspension of posts within the PdL, including that of party secretary - Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.

Alfano is the leader of the so-called doves in the PdL, moderates who in recent months have been embroiled in a tussle with hawks in the party, many of whom are in favour of breaking off the government alliance with Premier Enrico Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD). The deputy premier, who did not attend Friday's meeting, led the doves when they staged a mutiny this month that forced Berlusconi to back down on a bid to scupper the left-right executive in the wake of the supreme court's decision to uphold a tax-fraud conviction against the ex-premier.

The two factions pulled back from a split then, but the rifts within the party bubbled up again this week when Berlusconi was indicted in Naples for allegedly bribing a Senator to change political sides.

Many moderates in the party have said they are against moving to a resuscitated Forza Italia. Berlusconi said Alfano "continues to enjoy my esteem" after Friday's meeting.

But he stressed that his faith in Alfano and the other four centre-right ministers in Letta's cabinet, all of whom are moderates, was dependant on them "keeping by the decisions of the majority of the party". He said the new Forza Italia's first national assembly will take place on December 8, the day the PD is set to hold a primary to elect its new leader.

The doves and hawks both believe that Berlusconi is the victim of a campaign of persecution by left-wing judges who are trying to wipe him off the political scene.

But the doves do not think the party should torpedo the government over Berlusconi's legal problems, as the country struggles to emerge from its longest recession in over two decades.

Berlusconi appeared to try to keep the doves on board as he stressed that "we will continue to give our support to the government". Berlusconi tried to bring the government down after the PD - which the PdL joined in a fragile, unnatural alliance in April to end two months of deadlock after February's inconclusive general election - backed moves for the 77-year-old to be stripped of his Senate seat after his tax fraud conviction became definitive.

As a result the three-time premier looks set to be ejected from parliament next month.

Berlusconi has requested to serve his one-year tax-fraud sentence - reduced from four years because of an amnesty - by doing community service, rather than house arrest. He is too old to actually go to jail.

He is also appealing against prison convictions for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to cover up the affair and for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap.