The uneasy calm which had settled over Italian politics since the appointment of Lamberto Dini's stopgap technocratic government three weeks ago shattered as the third-highest figure in the state hierarchy, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Irene Pivetti, denounced Mr Berlusconi as a demagogue.
Ms Pivetti, breaking the code of impartiality that goes with her job, turned up unexpectedly at the congress of her Northern League party on Sunday night and castigated Mr Berlusconi as "someone very sly, very shrewd, who knows exactly how to look after his own interests at the expense of democratic values".
Her remarks outraged Mr Berlusconi's supporters, who demanded her immediate resignation, but appeared to be a deliberate provocation to trigger an election campaign.
Political sources said her initiative was consistent with moves across the centre and left to hold elections as quickly as possible - probably in June, as Mr Berlusconi himself wants - but on condition that anti- trust legislation loosening Mr Berlusconi's grip on the media can be introduced in the meantime.
The leader of the left-wing PDS, Massimo D'Alema, is due to meet Mr Berlusconi later this week to seek agreement on an election date, and last night his party executive was meeting to finalise what conditions to impose. Mr Berlusconi will almost certainly have to cede some ground if he does not want Mr Dini's government to continue in office until next year or beyond.
The media-ownership issue was brought up by one of Mr Berlusconi's newest allies, the Christian Democrat leader, Rocco Buttiglione, who said that without new legislation he could not continue to support Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
So far only Forza Italia and their far-right partners in the National Alliance, who together control no more than 250 of the 650 seats in the lower house of parliament, have voiced firm opposition to media reform.
This week a commission convened by Ms Pivetti will decide whether to replace the governing body of the state broadcaster RAI, which for the past year has progressively replaced senior editorial staff with figures sympathetic to Mr Berlusconi.
Journalists and opposition politicians have denounced what they see as an "occupation" of a vital public service and effective control by Mr Berlusconi of five of the country's six leading television channels.
Mr Berlusconi gave a measure of the pressure he is under in an interview with the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera in which he said some of his adversaries were treating him "as Hitler treated the Jews".
"Their aim has now been declared, to destroy me and my television networks," he said. "Only when they have conquered [the RAI] will they agree to going to the polls."
Sources within Mr Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance expressed worries yesterday that their leader might be more of an electoral liability than an asset, particularly since they fear he could soon be in further trouble with anti-corruption magistrates in Milan investigating his business affairs.
There was even talk of dropping Mr Berlusconi as the Alliance's candidate for prime minister in favour of a less controversial figure.Reuse content