Italy's government at stake as PM Letta seeks confidence vote

ROME – Premier Enrico Letta appealed for his government’s survival Wednesday ahead of confidence votes in Parliament amid a divisive split in Silvio Berlusconi’s party that could at least temporarily save his fragile ruling coalition.

In a speech to the Senate before the vote, Letta hailed his 5-month-old government’s successes and outlined his agenda to revive Italy’s moribund economy and turnaround its record unemployment as he warned lawmakers that Italy “runs a risk, a fatal risk” depending on the choices they make.

“Give us your confidence to realize these objectives. Give us your confidence for all that has been accomplished,” Letta said to applause. “A confidence vote that isn’t against anyone, but a confidence vote for Italy and Italians.”

It was a last-ditch attempt to persuade enough lawmakers to defy Berlusconi’s call to bring down the government. The key vote is in the Senate, where Berlusconi’s allies have a narrow majority.

Entering the senate, Berlusconi appeared less combative than he has in recent days: “We’ll see what happens,” Italian news agencies quoted him as saying. “We’ll listen to Letta’s speech and then decide.”

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party has been thrown into chaos, with several lawmakers and his closest ally and political heir Angelino Alfano openly defying him and saying they would support the government.

Berlusconi had demanded Alfano and his four other ministers quit Letta’s government ahead of a vote Friday that could strip the former premier of his Senate seat following his tax fraud conviction and four-year prison sentence.

A law passed in 2012 says anyone receiving sentences longer than two years cannot hold public office for six years. Berlusconi has challenged the law’s constitutionality and has accused judges who handed down the sentence of trying to eliminate him from Italy’s political life.

Letta addressed his claims straight on in his speech to the Senate, saying Italy is a country based on the rule of law.

“In a democratic state, sentences are respected and applied, always with the right to the defence without treatment in favour or against individuals, whether they be citizens or senators,” he said.

The unusual defiance of Berlusconi by his stalwart allies could signal that the three-time former premier’s influence is seriously eroding after two decades leading Italy’s centre-right and being the main point of reference in Italy’s political scene.

And the 77-year-old billionaire media mogul has reacted by making seemingly erratic demands that some Italian commentators have likened to the desperate, fitful sparks of a candle going out.

But Berlusconi has endured numerous political setbacks in the past, only to re-emerge strong.

“Berlusconi has nine lives and we can’t exclude a tenth,” leading daily Corriere della Sera wrote on its front page Wednesday. “He knows the art of seducing senators and still has enough wiggle room for a turnabout at the last minute.”

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