Berlusconi is holding his country to ransom

The ex-Prime Minister's latest antics bode badly for Italy’s immediate future

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Italian politics is, once again, in crisis. And, once again, it is Silvio Berlusconi’s limitless self-interest that is to blame.

The latest ructions came after he ordered the five ministers from his centre-right party to leave the left-right coalition led by Prime Minister Enrico Letta. Mr Berlusconi claims his motive is his opposition to the plan to raise value-added tax. In reality, though, his reasoning is shamefully, if predictably, self-centred. A Senate committee will vote this week on whether to throw the former Prime Minister out of parliament following his conviction for tax fraud. The beleaguered Mr Berlusconi, who is also accused of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute, hopes to pile on the pressure by holding his country to ransom.

Mr Berlusconi’s pique has forced Mr Letta to hold a vote of confidence tomorrow, with the risk of a snap election if he cannot win it. All of which bodes badly for Italy’s immediate future, as investors’ reaction yesterday morning – sending bond yields sharply upwards and stocks sharply downwards – reflected.

Such concern is more than justified. Italy’s economy is still in a parlous state, struggling to claw its way out of two years of recession and plagued by vast public debt and painfully high youth unemployment. It will take a firm government to push through the reforms so desperately needed; and if Mr Letta has struggled to make himself effective so far, his coalition is now within an ace of collapse.

The shenanigans of recent days are yet another reminder of the baleful influence of Mr Berlusconi on Italian life. There is a ray of hope, though – albeit a slender one. Several of the ministers in question have proved less inclined to comply with their leader’s directive than they once would have. There is even a question as to whether they will leave the government at all. It would be precipitous to conclude that Il Cavaliere’s stranglehold on power is over. But we can hope.

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