x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Italian PM survives vote after Berlusconi about-face

Former premier makes stunning about-face and throws his support behind the government of Enrico Letta in confidence vote.

ROME // Silvio Berlusconi made a stunning about-face yesterday and threw his support behind the government of the prime minister Enrico Letta in a confidence vote.

Mr Berlusconi, a three-time former premier, acknowledged defeat on the Senate floor after defections in his party robbed him of the backing he needed to bring down the government.

Mr Berlusconi’s support ensured the survival – for now – of Mr Letta’s 5-month-old left-right coalition. But it signalled that the 77-year-old billionaire’s once unchallenged authority over Italy’s centre-right has wobbled as his judicial woes catch up with him.

“Italy needs a government that can produce structural and institutional reforms that the country needs to modernise,” Mr Berlusconi said. “We have decided, not without internal strife, to vote in confidence.”

It was a major setback for Mr Berlusconi, who over the weekend had demanded his five cabinet ministers quit the government and bring it down, incensed at a vote planned for tomorrow that could strip him of his Senate seat following his tax-fraud conviction and four-year prison sentence.

But in a remarkable challenge to Mr Berlusconi’s authority, several allies balked and said they would instead support Mr Letta’s hybrid coalition to push ahead with necessary economic and political measures. Italy is in its second year of recession, youth unemployment reached a record 40 per cent last month and the president has insisted that a new electoral law be passed to avoid inconclusive results in any future general election.

The unusual show of defiance could signal that Mr Berlusconi’s influence has seriously eroded after two decades leading the centre-right and being the main protagonist in the country’s political scene. Some commentators have likened Mr Berlusconi’s erratic and seemingly counterproductive reaction to the challenge to the desperate, fitful sparks of a candle going out.

But he has endured political setbacks in the past, only to re-emerge strong. For the first time ever, though, Mr Berlusconi now has a definitive court sentence against him and the very real possibility that he could be barred from holding public office.

Close collaborator Renato Schifani insisted that Mr Berlusconi had not been weakened and stressed that the party had voted together.

“I am truly happy that there was no split,” he said. “Berlusconi’s leadership has been strengthened.”

Heading into the confidence vote, the numbers were in flux. The dissenting senator Roberto Formigoni said some 25 Berlusconi allies had defected and signed on to support Mr Letta, apparently enough to tip the balance in Mr Letta’s favour in the 321-member chamber.

Rather than highlight the divisions and defections, Mr Berlusconi instead threw in the towel and changed course. In the end, the Senate voted to back Letta 235-70 with 14 abstentions and one absence.

* Associated Press