Berlusconi's coalition in crisis after partner quits

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Silvio Berlusconi's government was plunged into crisis yesterday when a key coalition partner pulled out.

Silvio Berlusconi's government was plunged into crisis yesterday when a key coalition partner pulled out.

The Union of Christian Democrats (UDC) took less than two hours to follow the advice of its leader, Vice Prime Minister Marco Follini, and announce that it was withdrawing its ministers and other serving officials from the government.

Four ministers including Mr Follini resigned. One was Rocco Buttiglione, Mr Berlusconi's minister for European affairs, rejected last year as a commissioner after describing homosexuality as a sin.

Another small party in the coalition, the New Italian Socialist Party led by the former foreign minister Gianni de Michelis, also announced it was quitting.

The departure of the Christian Democrats is the most serious problem Mr Berlusconi's government has faced since coming to power four years ago. In 11 of the 18 constituencies in last week's regional elections, the ruling parties lost to the centre-left opposition. Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the biggest component of the government with 173 MPs, did particularly badly.

The UDC has 34 MPs, and if they abstained or voted with the Opposition the government would be defeated. But Mr Follini yesterday pledged his "loyal" support to the government from outside.

Mr Follini and his colleagues had been urging the Prime Minister to acknowledge the scale of the defeat in the regional elections by submitting his resignation to the head of state, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. If that happened, the President would probably ask Mr Berlusconi to form a new government, enabling a fresh start in time for the general elections, due at the latest next spring.

But instead, Mr Berlusconi and his closest ally, Umberto Bossi's Northern League, have preferred a "minimalistic" adjustment to government ministers and policies. Mr Follini's decision to pull out was in reaction to this impasse. "In the face of an electoral defeat and a difficult general election, we've asked for a new government," Mr Follini said. "But the reply was the value of continuity and a certain minimalism with respect to the electoral result. We think differently."

Opposition leaders demanded Mr Berlusconi's resignation. Piero Fassino, leader of the Left Democrats, the biggest opposition party, said: "The decision by the UDC to withdraw its ministers creates a crisis that cannot be hidden or disguised. The Prime Minister must resign today."

Mr Berlusconi responded with characteristic bravado. "I'm not worried in the slightest," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, I haven't ruled anything out. You're not going to get rid of me that easily." He was expected to meet Mr Ciampi for talks.

Commentators say that behind Mr Follini's decision is the growing belief that "Berlusconism", the political force which sprang up 12 years ago after the Christian Democrats and Socialists were disgraced in the Tangentopoli (Bribes-ville) corruption scandal, could crumble into dust as suddenly as it appeared.

After that big shake-out, the Christian Democrats who had ruled Italy in coalition governments since the war were reduced to several fragments, including the one led by Mr Follini.

But the dream of reclaiming glories past has never gone. "The crisis of Berlusconism," says Federico Geremicca of La Stampa newspaper, "could produce a big bang in Italian politics comparable to the collapse of the Christian Democrats ... the usurped ones are ready to take their revenge on the usurper."