Italy’s Berlusconi to seek confidence vote; his main ally says they have the votes to win

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Italy’s Berlusconi to seek confidence vote

ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi will seek a confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies on his government’s priorities for reforms. His main ally boasted Tuesday that the coalition had secured enough loyal lawmakers to win the political gamble.

Should the government lose the vote, Berlusconi would be obliged to resign, opening the way for possible parliamentary elections far ahead of the 2013 scheduled date, just as his government reels from recent coalition defections.

But Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, Berlusconi’s longtime main ally, said there was “no risk” of a government defeat. “Berlusconi and I have the votes,” Bossi said on a radio talk show.

Berlusconi asked to address the Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday morning to lay out his priorities for the rest of the parliamentary term. Legislation he is pushing includes a justice system reform that would likely abort criminal cases linked to his business empire dealings in which he is a defendant.

By winning a confidence vote, Berlusconi, a media mogul, would emerge politically strengthened and likely avoid early elections. Recent polls have indicated his popularity is slipping.

Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa noted that Berlusconi, huddling with top leaders in his coalition, could have opted not to seek the confidence motion.

But instead the government chose to “privilege a numbers count, offering Italians (the opportunity) to see if the government has or doesn’t have a majority” to turn his program into legislation, La Russa told state TV.

Berlusconi’s spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti said the premier called a meeting of his Cabinet for Wednesday morning, just before the speech, to officially sanction that decision.

“The confidence vote is a choice for absolute clarity,” Bonaiuti said.

Berlusconi’s 2008 election win over the center-left left him with a comfortable majority in both the Senate and lower Chamber of Deputies.

But this summer, following months of nasty squabbling, ally Gianfranco Fini split with Berlusconi, taking with him more than 30 stalwarts and leaving Berlusconi officially shy of the number of lawmakers he needs to win a confidence vote.

The last few days have seen Berlusconi aides feverishly trying to woo some of Fini’s loyalists as well as centrists who remained outside the coalition after the 2008 election.

On Tuesday evening, several lawmakers considered swing votes dropped by the premier’s residence for consultations, news reports said.

Berlusconi has said his speech will include pledges for reforms geared to giving regions more control of taxes. Bossi’s Northern League is a regional party whose base in the affluent north has clamored for years for more local autonomy over tax revenues.

Fini has said he would support Berlusconi’s justice reform measure if it won’t prevent ordinary citizens from obtaining justice in trials and isn’t tailor-made just to help the premier.

The reform would streamline Italy’s much-criticized long trial process, but critics contend Berlusconi wants to change the laws to end corruption cases against him. The premier has long claimed that he is an innocent victim of prosecutors he says side with the political left, and insists the reform would bolster democracy in Italy.

Meanwhile, personality clashes and lack of a clear leader have left the opposition center-left unable to capitalize much on Berlusconi’s political setbacks, recent opinion polls have indicated.

(This version CORRECTS spelling of defense minister’s name from Lo Russa to La Russa.)

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