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Letta sees govt strengthened by Berlusconi party's exit

Will push through reforms despite slim Senate majority, PM says

27 November, 19:07
Letta sees govt strengthened by Berlusconi party's exit

(By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, November 27 - Premier Enrico Letta was upbeat Wednesday about his emergency government implementing key political and economic reforms despite seeing his Senate majority cut to a slim six on paper after Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia (FI) party pulled its support.

Letta welcomed the exit of his unruly one-time partner - who was ejected from the Senate in a long-awaited vote on a tax-fraud conviction late Wednesday - and said the government's victory in a confidence vote on the budget in the upper house gave the executive "strength, cohesion and prospects for all of 2014".

The slimmed-down government, no longer shackled by Berlusconi's demands, will be better able to focus on the reform agenda it tabled seven months ago, the premier said.

Letta's government plans a series of institutional reforms designed to make Italy easier to govern and has pledged to move forward with structural reforms deemed necessary to revive an economy battered by a long recession and a decade of sluggish growth.

His coalition government made little progress with these after being cobbled together in April to end the long deadlock after February's inconclusive general election.

In large part this was due to major policy wrangles between Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Berlusconi's recently disbanded People of Freedom (PdL) party.

Letta said this situation should change after his executive survived a confidence vote in the Senate on its 2014 budget bill despite FI voting against the package and completing its move to the opposition. "We'll use the strength given by the confidence vote to accelerate the path of reforms because the country needs them," Letta told a press conference. When he was sworn in, Letta set himself an 18-month deadline to introduce a new election law and usher in changes to Italy's Constitutional set-up to make the country easier to govern.

Changes to the Constitution should include stripping the Senate of law-making powers and turning it into a regional assembly.

At present the Senate has the same powers as the Lower House, and legislation has to be approved in the same form in both houses, making lawmaking a drawn-out affair.

The current electoral law has been widely criticised because it does not let voters pick their MPs and tends to produce different majorities in the two houses, as happened in February's general election which led to two months of deadlock.

Letta stressed that FI's exit did not mean he was no longer at the helm of a coalition government. Letta's government has managed to stay afloat with the support of Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano's New Centre Right (NCD) party, which is made up of moderates who this month split from Berlusconi's loyalists.

"It remains a government supported by political parties that have formed a grand coalition, as in Germany," he said.

Italian dailies stressed Wednesday that Letta's majority in the Senate has been cut to six on paper but he can also count on five Life Senators who are left-leaning while four former members of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement may also support him.

Letta pointed to the 35-vote majority in the budget confidence vote as evidence that the government is "stronger than it looks on paper".

"We have more votes than the last Berlusconi government," said the premier, who enjoys a 70-seat majority in the Lower House.

Although pundits note the NCD will still be pushing for moderate conservative policies, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, set to become PD leader on December 8, has said his party's greater stature as the senior partner means it should be able to impose a more progressive agenda.

Berlusconi, who has vowed to carry on leading FI and the broader centre right, including the NCD, while doing community service for the remaining nine months of his fraud sentence and even during his six-year ban from office, launched a campaign against the new government at a rally outside his Rome mansion ahead of the ejection vote.

He inveighed against the PD, the NCD, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and the allegedly left-wing magistrates he says have conducted a 20-year systematic campaign of persecution against him.

The 77-year-old media magnate's loss of his parliamentary immunity technically exposes him to the risk of arrest in other cases but pundits say this is unlikely given his age and the furore it would cause.

Berlusconi is appealing a seven-year term for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his position as premier to cover it up.

He is also appealing a one-year term for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap that hurt a political rival.

Berlusconi has been indicted on charges of bribing a Senator to switch sides too.

Wednesday morning's confidence vote was just part of the process to approve the budget bill that needs to be completed by the end of the year. The package has been criticised in Italy for being too timid in tax cuts and not doing enough to stoke growth, as the country seeks to emerge from its longest recession in over two decades.