Silvio Berlusconi will meet President Giorgio Napolitano this morning to explain why he has threatened to put "millions of people on the streets of Rome" if a general election is not scheduled immediately.
The meeting comes on the last day of talks held by Mr Napolitano with all the main forces in Italian politics. He is trying to thrash out an agreement on how to escape from the thorniest crisis Italy has faced since the implosion of the First Republic amid a massive bribery scandal 15 years ago.
Italy has been rudderless since the centre-left Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, lost a vote of confidence in the Senate last Thursday. His quarrelsome coalition, which included Communists, Greens and staunch Catholics among its nine parties, fell apart after 20 months in power after the defection of the Justice Minister, who resigned when he and his wife were accused of corruption. In an apparent fit of pique, the ex-minister, Clemente Mastella, pulled his mini-party out of the coalition, and the loss of his three senators was enough to bring down the government.
The centre-left blames electoral rules brought in by Mr Berlusconi, which favour small parties like Mr Mastella's, for the frailty of their coalition, and have been plaintively demanding that new rules be passed before the next election. This would also give time for the recently launched Democratic Party, designed to be a mainstream centrist force capable of taking on Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia, to gear up for the fight.
They want the President to appoint a "technical" government to run the country for up to a year to pass this and other essential reforms. Mr Napolitano is known to favour the same solution. But Mr Berlusconi, whose centre-right coalition has a lead of about 15 per cent in the polls, is insistent that elections be scheduled immediately.
On Sunday, he warned that if this didn't happen, "millions" of his supporters would protest in Rome. Opponents were livid at the remark, claiming Mr Berlusconi was trying to intimidate the head of state, evoking the "March on Rome" by thugs of the Fascist Party which catapulted Benito Mussolini into power in 1921 amid a comparable parliamentary stalemate.
Yesterday, the veteran libertarian leader Marco Pannella, whose small but influential Radical Party was a member of Mr Berlusconi's coalition last time around, said: "On the eve of his visit to the Quirinal Palace, Berlusconi announces that if the President doesn't carry out his wishes, millions will march on Rome. It's alarming that we are all silent about this." Mr Napolitano was said to be "irritated" by the threat.
Mr Berlusconi's spokes-man, Paolo Bonaiuti, said: "The press have made a great scandal out of this ... but the simple truth is that the people want elections to get them out of this crisis. They want change. We are submerged in letters, faxes, emails and text messages telling us that people are ready to go out and march."Reuse content