Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi yesterday warned parliamentary rebels that they risked plunging the country into financial meltdown should they vote down his government in today's no-confidence motion.
Fighting for his political life, Mr Berlusconi said it would be "political madness" to sink his administration and create political and economic uncertainty with speculators constantly looking for weak links in the eurozone.
"I ask you... to reflect on the political madness that opening a crisis without visible and credible solutions would be today," Mr Berlusconi said in a speech to the Senate. "Our country is being shaken by serious tensions that concern the heart of the economic system – the financial credibility of the state."
The government is expected to prevail comfortably in the first of two votes today, in the Senate. But the 74-year-old premier, whose credibility has been fatally eroded by a tide of sleaze and corruption allegations in the past 18 months, was desperately trying to secure the votes in the 630-seat lower chamber that he needs to survive. Most analysts said last night the result was too close to call.
The outcome will be largely decided by how many members of the fledgling centre-right Future and Freedom for Italy Party (FLI) vote against the conservative government.
Party founder, Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the lower house, broke ranks with the premier in July after months of bickering, and took more than 30 rebels with him from the governing People of Liberty Party (PDL), that he founded with Mr Berlusconi.
Corriere della Sera newspaper suggested yesterday that the vote hung on seven members of the lower house, one of whom, Democratic Party member Federica Mogherini, was due to have her first child yesterday. "If I go into labour, there's nothing I can do," she told journalists.
In his address to parliament yesterday, Mr Berlusconi used a carrot and stick approach. He branded centre-right rebels who deserted the government as traitors, and in the next breath appeared to offer waverers, and even centrist UDC party MPs, the prospect of cabinet posts. He also hinted at electoral reform.
UDC party leader Pier Ferdinando Casini rejected the offer in a terse reply. "If Berlusconi believes in uniting the moderates, he should resign before the confidence vote," he said.
Mr Fini has accused the Prime Minister of clinging on to power in order to evade magistrates who want to haul him into court on corruption charges. Under the government's "legitimate impediment" rule, ministers can put off court appearances for 18 months.
Mr Berlusconi again denied the recent WikiLeaks corruption allegations, which were among the most serious he has ever faced. The leaked US diplomatic cables suggested he profited personally from contracts signed by Italian energy and defence companies with Russian businesses. "I can guarantee on the heads of my five children and six grandchildren that I didn't get a single dollar" from deals between Italian and Russian companies, he told senators.
Most observers argued that even if the government limps home today with a tiny majority, its days as a functioning administration were numbered, and that Italy would probably have to hold elections well before the government's mandate runs out in 2013.
A point that was reinforced by Mr Berlusconi's most important coalition ally, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League. "With the advantage of just one vote, you can't govern," he said.
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