Berlusconi's rift with former ally threatens to tear government apart

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The Independent Online

A political rift between Silvio Berlusconi and his one-time heir apparent, Gianfranco Fini, left the Italian government in chaos yesterday as the governing party's majority started to drain away.

The crisis, sparked by Mr Berlusconi's call on Thursday night for Mr Fini to quit his job as parliamentary Speaker, deepened as a group of rebel MPs from Mr Berlusconi's ruling People of Liberty (PdL) Party backed Mr Fini with a new parliamentary grouping, endangering Mr Berlusconi's majority in the lower house.

Mr Berlusconi said his ultimatum was prompted by constant provocations from his supposed key ally. "We've tried everything to make it up with Fini, but it has not been possible," he said. "I'm no longer prepared to accept the dissent – a party within a party."

He added that Mr Fini, a former neo-fascist and recent convert to the same variety of liberal conservatism favoured by David Cameron, was too politically engaged to hold the neutral position of Speaker. Mr Fini has used his powerful position consistently to impede the Prime Minister's most controversial legislation.

Yesterday at least 33 MPs supporting Mr Fini announced a new centre-right party, to be called Future and Freedom for Italy. Mr Fini's refusal to quit means that Mr Berlusconi will now require a parliamentary vote to force out the holder of the third-highest office of state.

"This would be unheard of, and I think there would even be quite a few Berlusconi supporters who'd think twice before doing that," said James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome.

The split came within hours of the government succeeding in forcing its unpopular austerity package through parliament. The PdL Party has imploded less than 18 months after it was founded when Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the former fascist National Alliance, headed by Mr Fini, merged shortly after the general election.

Mr Berlusconi's biggest worry now will be maintaining a majority. The departure of so many MPs could mean the PdL might have fewer that the 316 votes it needs to pass motions in the lower house. Ominously for the Prime Minister, Mr Fini said yesterday that his supporters would "not hesitate to fight proposals that are unfair or damaging to the wider interest". The Prime Minister yesterday met the head of the increasingly powerful Northern League, Umberto Bossi, whose support is essential for a stable Berlusconi government. The anti-immigration League gives Mr Berlusconi's movement the margin it needs to govern. Asked if the split with Mr Fini would force early elections, the rambunctious Mr Bossi raised his middle finger to reporters.

Mr Berlusconi could push for the dissolution of parliament and new elections. While recent polls show his and his party's ratings sliding, the official centre-left opposition remains weak and divided. It's not clear, however, if President Giorgio Napolitano would agree to dissolve parliament.

Many observers claimed the final straw for Mr Berlusconi and his supporters was Mr Fini's insistence on delaying and watering down the controversial bill limiting the use and publication of wire-taps – legislation widely seen as a means of sparing the hard-partying Prime Minister's own blushes. Yesterday Mr Fini accused the Prime Minister of trying to run a government with an "autocratic business mentality, which has nothing to do with our democratic institutions".

Mr Fini is seen by many as a prime minister-in-waiting, and yesterday he launched into a speech with more than a whiff of campaigning rhetoric about it. "I thank the many, many citizens who have shown solidarity with me in these hours and who have called on me to continue in the name of principles such as love of country, national unity, social justice, legality in the fullest sense of the term, but also public ethics, the sense of the public state and respect for the rules," he said.

The final remarks were seen as a reference to the latest scandal to engulf the government, with several senior PdL figures under investigation for alleged roles in the secret P3 society, named after the notorious P2 Masonic Lodge of the 1980s. Magistrates believe P3 members conspired to, among other things, nobble the Constitutional Court.