Berlusconi’s Party Collapsing After Government Survives

The former prime minister loses dozens of his allies after threatening to bring down Enrico Letta’s coalition government.

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European People's Party summit, May 15, 2006
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European People’s Party summit, May 15, 2006 (EPP)

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta survived a confidence vote in parliament on Wednesday when the conservative leader, Silvio Berlusconi, shrank back from earlier threats to bring down his government.

Berlusconi, a former prime minister himself who was earlier convicted of tax fraud, pulled his ministers from Letta’s cabinet last week, ostensibly in protest to planned tax increases. However, Letta’s social democrats on Wednesday accused the septuagenarian media tycoon of forcing a government crisis to salvage his own political career.

Having been twice convicted, Berlusconi is not allowed under present law to remain a member of the Senate. The body, in which Letta’s party does not have an absolute majority, is due to eject him.

Dozens of Berlusconi’s own members were prepared to back the government despite their leader’s push for new elections — which, polls show, would have changed little in the political balance of power. Even Angelino Alfano, the conservative party secretary who was once seen as Berlusconi’s heir, broke with his patron and called on lawmakers to support the government from which he himself had resigned as interior minister on Saturday.

The rebellion in his own ranks forced Berlusconi into a humiliating retreat that could leave the Italian right leaderless when he is robbed of his Senate seat later this month.

The billionaire businessman has dominated conservative politics since he was first elected prime minister in 1994. Previous coups and internal splits did little to undermine his position, or his popularity. Twenty-five conservative senators, led by former Lombardy regional president Roberto Formigoni, nevertheless announced on Wednesday that they intended to form their own group. Fabrizio Cicchitto, a former socialist, led a similar revolt in the Chamber of Deputies where, La Repubblica reported, 26 members were prepared to split from Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libert√†. Former health minister Beatrice Lorenzin was reportedly among them.

Letta, who took office in April after an election two months earlier gave neither the left nor the right a mandate to govern with its traditional allies, vowed to press on with budget reforms that are meant to keep Italy’s deficit under the European 3 percent treaty limit. He also pledged to change his nation’s electoral laws which give the two houses of parliament equal powers and make it difficult for any party to win a functioning majority.