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Berlusconi Allies Step up Threats over Italian Senate Ruling

Berlusconi Allies Step up Threats over Italian Senate

Rome – Allies of Silvio Berlusconi stepped up warnings on Tuesday that they would bring down Italy’s unstable ruling coalition if center-left lawmakers refuse to delay a hearing over expelling the billionaire former prime minister from parliament. A cross-party Senate committee, which is deciding whether Berlusconi should be stripped of his seat in the upper house following a conviction for tax fraud last month, resumes talks at 8.00 p.m. (1800 GMT) after an initial meeting on Monday.

But already tensions have flared, with Francesco Nitto Palma, a senator from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL), accusing center-left members of the committee of “an act of war” by insisting on moving ahead swiftly with the hearings.

Whether the threats go beyond simple brinkmanship remains unclear but the wrangling around the hearings has underlined how entwined Italy’s political stability remains with the personal fate of Berlusconi, 20 years after he first entered politics. With Italy still straining to contain its 2 trillion euro public debt, the Berlusconi imbroglio has also hobbled Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s efforts to reform the euro zone’s third largest economy, causing worries that extend well beyond Italy’s own borders.

Even before the committee meeting had properly begun, arguments broke out between the main partners in Letta’s coalition, with PDL members proposing an immediate delay until an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights can be heard. They were rebuffed by the center-left Democratic Party (PD), which has the largest number of members on the 23-member committee, and which accused the center-right of delaying tactics which could put off any decision for several months.

Renato Brunetta, floor leader of the PDL in the lower house, said that if the PD and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement led by comic Beppe Grillo maintained their opposition, the fragile coalition formed in the wake of last February’s deadlocked parliamentary elections would fall apart.

“If the Democratic Party and Grillo’s people decide this evening to vote against the proposals, the Democratic Party will bring down the Letta government,” he told RAI state radio.

Berlusconi, convicted by Italy’s top court last month of being at the center of a vast tax fraud conspiracy at his Mediaset television empire, could not be expelled without a full vote on the floor of the upper house. But he in any case faces banishment from front-line politics for at least a year after the court sentenced him to a four-year jail term that was then commuted to one year under house arrest or in community service. (Reuters)

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