Italy’s Berlusconi, facing confidence vote, says Italy cannot risk political stability

By Alessandra Rizzo, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Italy’s Berlusconi puts his government to test

ROME — Battling for his survival, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi asked lawmakers Wednesday for a vote of confidence in his government, saying Italy must be spared political instability at a time of financial woes.

Berlusconi outlined his government’s goals in a crucial parliament speech ahead of the confidence vote, which was called to test his majority after a split with longtime lieutenant Gianfranco Fini. The Italian leader struck a moderate, soft tone as he appealed for unity and national cohesion, carefully refraining from any controversial remark.

Berlusconi, who turned 74 Wednesday, is expected to survive the confidence vote in the lower house of parliament. But if he loses, he will have to resign halfway through his current five-year term.

The premier’s split with Fini, a charismatic right-wing leader, came after months of feuding over the government’s program and the balance of power in the party the two co-founded. The breakup this summer potentially deprived Berlusconi of his once-solid parliamentary majority, as 35 lawmakers loyal to Fini formed a breakaway faction.

Fini has pledged support for the government as long as it sticks to the electoral platform that returned the conservatives to power in 2008, but has also warned that his support would not be unconditional.

However, after hearing Berlusconi’s speech, Fini’s camp signaled they would vote in favor of the government on Wednesday.

“I am convinced that it is in our country’s absolute interest not to risk a period of instability during the crisis, which isn’t over yet,” Berlusconi said in his hour-long address. “We must multiply our common efforts to see the legislature through.”

He appealed to all moderate and reformist lawmakers, regardless of their party allegiances, to support the government — part of the premier’s efforts to expand his majority to centrist and even opposition lawmakers and become less dependent on Fini’s votes.

Berlusconi’s program for the remaining years of the legislature includes tax reform, measures to fight organized crime and illegal immigration, and a politically delicate plan to overhaul the justice system.

Berlusconi said the justice system, notoriously slow here, must be sped up. He said the country’s top officials must receive immunity from prosecution — a contentious issue since he is the defendant in two trials in Milan that have been put on hold thanks to a government measure.

Berlusconi, who has a history of legal woes stemming from his media empire in Milan, has always said that he is the innocent victim of politically driven magistrates.

While he touched on that argument in his parliamentary address, he stayed away from the emphatic attacks against the judiciary that he has launched in past, at one point calling magistrates the “cancer of democracy.”

Instead, he promised more funds to help clear the backlog of cases pending before courtrooms across Italy and averted potentially divisive details of how to guarantee a measure of immunity to top officials.

Analysts agree that Berlusconi would pass the confidence vote Wednesday, though the long-term stability of his government remains doubtful as differences with Fini persist.

“This speech was crafted so that today would pass with the least possible damage,” said Paolo Franchi of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “Tomorrow is another day.”

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