Berlusconi ousts long-time ally, vows his government will carry on

Friday, July 30, 2010

Berlusconi ousts ally, says government stable

ROME — Silvio Berlusconi has split with his oldest political ally and co-founder of his party, a spectacular falling-out expected to make it harder for the premier to push disputed legislation through parliament.

Berlusconi’s split with Gianfranco Fini does not put the Italian leader’s two-year-old government at immediate risk of collapse, analysts and officials said Friday. But it leaves the government with a slimmer parliamentary majority, especially in one house.

“We’re going toward a situation of war. I see great difficulties for this government and this legislature,” Stefano Folli, one of Italy’s leading analysts, told The Associated Press.

Berlusconi has a history of trying to push through parliament bills that are criticized as tailor-made to protect his interest or that of his associates. He maintains he acts for the good of the country.

For example, a bill seeking to restrict both the scope and publication of wiretaps — currently before parliament — has been fiercely opposed of lawmakers close to Fini, pushing further debate on it till after the summer recess.

“On the issue of Berlusconi’s judicial interests it will be like hitting against a wall,” Folli says. “There can be surprises there.”

Fini and Berlusconi, while often bickering, had been together since Berlusconi’s first foray into politics in 1994. Fini is a former Neo-Fascist leader whose alliance with Berlusconi has helped him move solidly toward mainstream conservatism.

Berlusconi’s current government took office in May 2008 with a five-year mandate.

Fini and Berlusconi have been at odds on a number of issues but most notably Fini has expressed unease about bills that were perceived as protecting Berlusconi or his associates from legal woes.

On Thursday night, Berlusconi effectively ousted Fini from the People of Freedom party, accusing him of creating a “party within a party” and having an “attitude of permanent opposition to the government.” Berlusconi said Fini had carried out “a systematic attack” against him.

But Berlusconi said he would have no problem keeping in the government one minister and some undersecretaries who are part of Fini’s faction.

Lawmakers loyal to Fini formed their own separate parliamentary group on Friday, meaning they would have free hands and not be mandated to vote as demanded by the Freedom of People party.

It was not clear how many people would follow Fini.

Berlusconi will have no problem securing a majority in the Senate. In the lower house of parliament, where Fini serves as speaker, the Freedom of People might be reduced to a very thin majority, or might even need to turn to its other government ally, the Northern League, to have one.

Fini said Friday his lawmakers will support the government when it sticks to its program. Folli said he expected Fini to remain loyal to the government on major issues such as Italy’s mission in Afghanistan and foreign or economic policies — austerity measures were passed by parliament just hours before the split was announced.

But Fini also said that they “will not hesitate to oppose choices that are seen as unjust or harmful of the general interest” — a possible reference to some of the controversial proposals pushed forward by Berlusconi .

Confidence in Berlusconi’s government has been slipping, coming in at 33 percent in July from 49 percent at the beginning of the government and a peak of 54 percent in September 2008. The poll by IPR marketing has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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