Berlusconi’s Party Splits After Failure to Bring Down Government

The former prime minister’s more centrist supporters are expected to form their own party.

Disagreement within former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party looks certain to divide the Italian right into a new conservative party and a more liberal group, both derived from the media tycoon’s Il Popolo della Libertà.

Berlusconi long maintained a solid grip over his party but faced overt opposition when he proposed to quit the government of Enrico Letta last month. Many conservatives were unwilling to link his judicial struggles — Berlusconi was convicted for tax fraud in his media empire — with the stability of the ruling coalition. His deputy, Angelino Alfano, and four other conservative ministers initially resigned from Letta’s cabinet but later turned against their leader with the support of more than twenty senators, forcing Berlusconi into a humiliating retreat.

The episode was the first interruption in Berlusconi’s twenty year-long domination of Italy’s right-wing politics and paved the way for a definitive split between the “government doves” and “loyalist hawks.”

In a vain attempt to reunite the right, Berlusconi revamped his old party, Forza Italia, which soon turned into a loyalist stronghold. Lawmakers who supported the coalition government remained in the old Il Popolo della Libertà instead.

Tensions came to a head on Friday when Berlusconi, as party president, called for a summit to prepare for Il Popolo della Libertà‘s dissolution in favor of Forza Italia. The announcement came as Alfano, the party’s secretary, was in Belgium to attend a European People’s Party summit.

The “doves,” in the minority, resisted the meeting, which they considered “not representative of the political composition of the political movement,” and asked for a wider internal consultation.

Commentators interpreted the call as Berlusconi’s concession to the hawks who were trying to speed up the consolidation process of Forza Italia in order to secure a stronger position on the right.

Maurizio Gasparri, the group’s leader in the Senate, clarified that “Forza Italia and PdL cannot coexist.” Raffaele Fitto, the hardliners’ leader, is collecting activists’ signatures to ratify the process.

If the loyalist do not succeed in their efforts to speed up the process, a decision should be made in early December when a party council is due. At the last such conference, Berlusconi officially endorsed Alfano as his successor but never really stepped aside. The upcoming council looks certain to divide the right into separate entities: a conservative Forza Italia that could also break from Letta’s coalition and a more liberal rump Il Popolo della Libertà led by Alfano.

The latter could merge with the smaller centrist parties that supported former prime minister Mario Monti’s reelection in February. Berlusconi’s daughter Marina is rumored to be nominated as Forza Italia‘s leader.

When the right convenes in early December, Letta’s party will elect its new secretary. Florence’s liberal mayor Matteo Renzi, who lost the party’s prime ministerial candidacy last year, is seen as the frontrunner.