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Berlusconi's party in chaos as hawks fight doves

Split beckons ahead of Saturday's national assembly

12 November, 17:01
Berlusconi's party in chaos as hawks fight doves

(By Paul Virgo)

(ANSA) - Rome, November 12 - Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party was in chaos on Tuesday as bitter in-fighting that looks likely to lead in a split continued to rage.

The centre-right group is in danger of dividing between pro-government doves and Berlusconi loyalists who are in favour of breaking off the government alliance with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) if their leader is ejected from parliament.

The PD, Premier Enrico Letta's party, has supported a drive for Berlusconi to be stripped of his Senate seat after the supreme court upheld a tax-fraud conviction against the 77-year-old media magnate, making it definitive.

A vote on ejecting the three-time premier from the Upper House, on the basis of a 2012 anti-corruption law that the PdL says is being applied retroactively, is scheduled to take place on November 27. The split may come at Saturday's national assembly of the PdL, which has been called to make it possible for the party to be replaced with a new group taking its former name, Forza Italia.

The Berlusconi loyalists, or hawks, are reportedly intent on settling scores with the doves at the assembly after they forced Berlusconi to make an embarrassing U-turn last month and back down on a bid to sink the government. The tension has become so high that a senior PdL dove said the moderates in the party may desert Saturday's meeting.

"In the last few hours the fire has become more extreme from the stokers, loyalists and hawks, so it seems that the conditions do not exist for a serene debate," Fabrizio Cicchitto, the PdL's former Lower House whip, told Naples daily Il Mattino. "I add that it is not clear what the agenda is or what the climate of such a delicate meeting will be. So the doubts about our participation are worthy of being examined". According to some reports, no debate will be allowed at Saturday's meeting, only Berlusconi will speak and the only motion to be voted on will be one prepared by the hawks. "We all have to agree that we're going back to Forza Italia and all the positions in the party are for Berlusconi to decide, as he's the one who wins the votes for everyone," said Daniela Santanchè, one of Berlusconi's staunchest loyalist. Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, the leader of the doves, said Tuesday that he was hopeful the PdL party could pull back from the brink of a painful split.

"We hope and are confident that our movement can remain united," said Alfano, who has effectively been stripped of his position of PdL secretary. Alfano, formerly Berlusconi's heir apparent in the party, led the rebellion that forced the three-time premier to back down last month and vote in favour of a confidence motion in Letta's government, just days after telling the PdL's ministers to resign. 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 sink the government over Berlusconi's legal problems, as the country struggles to emerge from its longest recession in over two decades.

Alfano made an appeal to Berlusconi's sense of responsibility on Tuesday.

"Berlusconi, who is the victim of a great judicial injustice, has always behaved as a statesman," he said. "I'm convinced Berlusconi has been rewarded by this line and will continue to be rewarded by it". At the weekend Alfano called on Berlusconi to continue to back the government even if he is ejected from the Senate.

The ex-premier responded that it would be unthinkable for his party to cooperate with the PD if it commits "political homicide" by getting him stripped of his seat and warned the doves that they risked political oblivion.

Letta, meanwhile, said Monday that sinking his grand-coalition government, which was cobbled together by traditional foes in the PdL and PD in April to end the deadlock after February's inconclusive general election, would achieve nothing. His logic is that fresh elections would probably produce another inconclusive outcome and another grand coalition unless the current widely criticised election law is changed. Many experts think Letta would be able to keep his government afloat with the support of PdL rebels if Berlusconi tried to torpedo it again.