'We won't be blackmailed': Italy’s fragile coalition government close to collapse as centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta warns People of Freedom party that he won't buckle over Silvio Berlusconi

 

The collapse of Italy’s fragile coalition government appears to have moved a step closer with centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta warning Silvio Berlusconi’s conservatives that he would not “blackmailed” as they try to prevent the criminal tycoon from being kicked out of parliament.

Following the mogul’s definitive tax-fraud conviction earlier this month, a senate disciplinary committee, dominated by Berlusconi opponents, will meet in September to discuss his conviction. Under the “Severino law”, they are obliged to vote for the three-time premier’s expulsion from the Senate.

Leading members of Berlusconi’s Pdl (People of Freedom) Party, including ministers in the coalition, say they will pull the rug from under the government if their leader is evicted. One such Pdl parliamentarian, the Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano met with Mr Letta for three hours on Wednesday evening in an attempt to persuade Mr Letta to stop Berlusconi’s expulsion. But after the meeting, Premier Letta said: “I don’t accept blackmail or inadmissible ultimatums.”

In an interview this morning, Michaela Biancofiore, a Pdl MP and junior minister in the current coalition, said that the government would fall were Berlusconi expelled form parliament as the law demands.

But leading figures in the Democratic Party (Pd), already ill at ease working with the right-wing Pdl, appear determined to block any compromise regarding Berlusconi’s predicament.

The Pd minister and government whip Dario Franceschini said today: “Regarding the threats and the ultimatums, we only need to respond with a simple principle: do not barter legality and respect for the rules to prolong a government. Ever.”

The Pdl’s threat to pull the plug on the government comes amid first signs of a revival in Italy’s recession-mired economy. As a result, the centre-right has been accused by some of holding Italy to ransom, just when it needs a period of stable government.

Political pundit James Walston of the American University of Rome said: “A collapse of the government now would be disastrous. I think they will try and find a fudge, a way out. by delaying the vote in the Senate.”

Berlusconi, who is already facing a period of house arrest or community service for the tax fraud conviction, is thought to dread losing his Senate seat. Observers note that deprived of parliamentary protection, magistrates will find it much easier to arrest him for other crimes of which he is accused.

The new anti-corruption law that looks set to expel him from parliament was drafted by the leading criminal lawyer Paola Severino, in her role as justice minister in the previous Mario Monti government. Berlusconi supporters say it should not be applied retrospectively. But Ms Severino told La Repubblica newspaper this week that the legislation was clearly applied to crimes committed before it became law in December in 2012.

Berlusconi, in an interview with the conservative Catholic journal Tempi, attacked once again what he claimed was a left wing conspiracy against him. “They can’t take away my right to speak in the public arena,” he said. “They can’t take away the right to remain the point of reference for millions of Italians as long as this is want Italians want.”

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