Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s grip on power loosened as Gianfranco Fini, speaker of Italy’s lower house of parliament, abandoned the premier’s ruling party to create a new group with enough votes to sink the government.
Berlusconi, 73, yesterday called on his oldest political ally to abandon his office, the country’s third highest, and leave the People of Liberty party that the two co-founded in 2008. Fini is “absolutely incompatible with the principles of the party,” Berlusconi said.
In a statement read to reporters near the Pantheon in Rome today, Fini refused to resign as speaker and said his new group will support the government while opposing legislation it deems “unjustly damaging.” Thirty-two members of the lower house left Berlusconi today to join his rival’s new Future and Freedom for Italy formation. That’s enough to deprive Berlusconi of a majority in the chamber and bring down the government if they voted against the premier.
“This is a declaration of war,” James Walston, a professor of politics at American University in Rome, said in an interview. “There will be a showdown in parliament at some point in the autumn and they will pull out their guns. Right now they’re eyeball to eyeball.”
The public rift between the two has contributed to Berlusconi’s popularity falling to the lowest since he came to power in May 2008. Fini, 58, and his allies recently have clashed with Berlusconi over a draft law to limit wiretapping, which is scheduled to be debated in the chamber after the August break, setting up a possible confrontation. Fini’s group has said that enforcing the rule of law, not individual privacy, must be the priority.
Fini said his party would be made up of the “honest” members of Berlusconi’s bloc “who are thankful to prosecutors and the forces of order.”
Berlusconi often criticizes prosecutors and is currently facing two corruption trials. Three government officials and several party chiefs face corruption probes, in part because of extensive use of phone bugs. Berlusconi passed an immunity measure earlier this year that froze the trials against him. He denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations are political.
Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the biggest opposition party, today said “there’s no more government,” and called for a temporary administration to be installed to pass a new electoral law and then shepherd the country to an early vote.
“We don’t believe that there’s any risk to the government,” Berlusconi said yesterday.
Fini’s bloc is providing “a form of external support” to the government, Angela Napoli, a lawmaker joining the group, said in an interview. “No one really seems to be ready for elections yet.”
Berlusconi and Fini first joined forces in 1994, when their Forza Italia and National Alliance parties became coalition allies. They have since won three elections together, the last one in 2008, when they fused their blocs and ran as a single formation.
Even though he holds one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in postwar Italy, Berlusconi’s coalition has often been divided. The premier has had to resort to a record number of 36 confidence votes, a move that stakes the government’s survival on the outcome, to push through legislation such as austerity measures to trim the country’s budget deficit.