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Monti Faces Early Election Threat as Berlusconi Party Rebels

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti faces a deadline today to reverse his plan to separate regional and national voting or risk a rebellion by his supporters that could force early elections.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty Party, which supports the premier’s non-elected government, has demanded Monti reverse his position favoring regional ballots in February with the national elections to follow in April. The party called for Monti to act by today.

The government failed to make a recommendation at a meeting of Monti’s Cabinet today in Rome. Monti will meet with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who has the power to set the elections, this afternoon to discuss the voting, Berlusconi told reporters today.

Monti’s coalition of rivals is coming apart as Berlusconi and his backers, the most powerful political force in Italy over the last two decades, sink in opinion polls. People of Liberty, or PDL, has been beset by corruption scandals among regional members and weakened by its support of Monti’s tax increases and budget cuts. The party had about 15 percent backing in an SWG Institute poll today for state-broadcaster RAI, down from 25 percent in April.

“This is really an issue of life or death for the PDL,” said Giovanni Orsina a professor at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “They could cut the oxygen to the government, and then run an election campaign against” Monti’s policies, he said.

Montezemolo’s Effort

The flap comes as pressure mounts on Monti to participate in the elections. Ferrari SpA Chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo and the former head of Italy’s business lobby Confindustria, will announce a new political movement tomorrow in Rome that may field candidates in the election on a pro-Monti platform. Leaders have lobbied Monti to participate.

“We have spoken to him, but we are not pressuring him and we won’t,” Andrea Olivero, president of the Italian Christian workers association known as Acli, who is one of the leaders of Montezemolo’s political organization, said in an interview with Sky TG24. “It will be up to him to decide in what way to continue.”

Monti has said that he does not intend to run in the election, though reiterated that he is prepared to stay on should the vote produce a hung parliament.

Draining Support

Montezemolo’s new political movement could further drain support for the country’s other parties. The PDL’s slump in opinion polls has strengthened the position of its coalition partner and long-time rival, Italy’s Democratic Party, and provided a boost to the anti-austerity movement of comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo. Today’s poll showed that a pro-Monti list would initially be backed by 8.5 percent of voters, before potential alliances with other pro-Monti parties that could expand its support.

With a Monti list on offer, the Democratic Party, or PD, had 25 percent support in the SWG poll, down from 26.2 without the list. Grillo’s 5 Star Movement slips to 18.5 percent with the Monti list from 20.5 percent without. Still, the same poll indicated that 62 percent of voters don’t want Monti to serve another term.

The Monti administration recommended holding votes for Lazio and Lombardy, home to Rome and Milan respectively, on Feb. 11-12 after corruption investigations toppled the PDL-backed governments in both regions. PDL General Secretary Angelino Alfano, who said on Nov. 14 that the government had until today “to correct this colossal error,” of holding the regional and national votes at different times was less strident yesterday, saying the party would watch for the government’s response and evaluate its options.

Combining Vote

The government may opt to combine the regional and national vote and hold the elections in March, Corriere della Sera reported today, without citing sources.

“It seems unlikely to us that Alfano and the PDL are really serious about bringing down the government,” said Peter Ceretti an analyst at Eurasia Group in New York. Putting an early end to Monti’s term “would obviously prompt a negative market reaction and the public would take note of this,” Ceretti said.

The dispute on the timing of the vote may have more to do with the parties’ concerns of a poor showing in the regional election before having to campaign nationally, said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of politics at Luiss University. Grillo’s 5 Star has gained momentum this year and was the most voted party in Sicily’s regional elections last month.

“A defeat in the regional elections in Lazio and Lombardy would not help, to say the least, in the national campaign,” D’Alimonte said.

Election Law

An early vote might also be conditioned on whether the parties, who have been in talks for almost a year, can reach an agreement on revamping Italy’s election law, known as the Porcellum, or pigsty. All the main parties are seeking to change the law to make it easier for a party or coalition to win a working majority in Parliament, though they are divided on what new rules should look like.

“Voting in February would also mean voting with the Porcellum, which would make all parties look bad. And that’s going to favor potentially Grillo,” said Ceretti.

PD General Secretary Pier Luigi Bersani, who attended the conference yesterday with Alfano and Casini, opposed bringing Monti’s term to an early end.

“Political elections will take place at the natural end, unless the president of the republic and the premier reflect upon it differently, which I think would be linked to passing a new election law,” Bersani said.

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