Italy's center-right government still needs to avoid political crisis

15:22, September 24, 2010      

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Against all odds, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to be ready to prove those writing his political obituary wrong once again.

Berlusconi's government has been teetering on the edge of collapse since July, when long-time ally Gianfranco Fini pulled out of the People of Liberty alliance he co-founded with the prime minister two years ago.

Veteran Berlusconi watchers know it is never wise to predict the demise of the media tycoon-turned-politician, but this time the crisis seemed serious.

Without Fini's support, Berlusconi lacked a majority in parliament. That also meant support for what was left of the party - Berlusconi and Northern League leader Umberto Bossi - was concentrated in the more industrialized northern part of Italy, making an election unwise.

Furthermore, it all happened while Berlusconi's approval ratings were already eroding, due to the country's sluggish economy and a series of sex scandals reportedly involving under-age girls and prostitutes.

According to pollsters, Berlusconi's popularity ratings have not risen from one month to other since last year. To wit: a pair of polls released this week showed approval levels for the ruling coalition hovering under a third of the electorate, the lowest levels on record and around 10 points lower than when the government took power in 2008.

"Part of Berlusconi's problems are of his own doing, like the scandals, and part come from circumstances not directly in his control, like the economy," Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni, told Xinhua.

"The combination has proved deadly," Rossi said.

Opinioni showed approval levels for People of Liberty at 32 percent in its latest poll. A similar poll from Demos & Pi showed the level even lower, at just below 30 percent.

But despite all that, Berlusconi, who will turn 74 on Sept. 29, appears to be on the verge of defying the odds again.

The latest indications are that Berlusconi has wooed enough parliamentarians - about 20 of them, according to the Rome daily newspaper La Repubblica - from Fini's group and from smaller centrist parties to give him enough support to avoid new elections, at least for a while.

President Giorgio Napolitano, who must call for new elections, has thrown his weight behind Berlusconi's effort to avoid a mid-term vote.

For his part, Fini has softened his stance, saying he will evaluate supporting Berlusconi's plans for government on a "case-by-case" basis, though he did not say he would rejoin the alliance.

The same polls that show Berlusconi's slipping support also show that opposition parties have failed to gain enough traction to capitalize on the current government's problems.

But perhaps the biggest sign that Berlusconi is gaining strength may be that he has his swagger back.

After keeping a low profile for some time, Berlusconi has again been visible in recent weeks. He appeared in Moscow alongside Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, who joked that the two should serve in office until they are 120 years old.

Back in Italy, the billionaire media tycoon continued his long-standing tradition of off-color jokes, suggesting that women should marry men for their money.

Experts said that the unknown factor is the extent to which Berlusconi and his allies will be affected by their latest brush with political death. Most contend that if the four-time prime minister indeed manages to survive, he will be significantly weaker than in the past.

"It's never a good idea to write Berlusconi off for good," said Franco Pavoncello, president of Rome's John Cabot University and a frequent political commentator.

"But he's been seriously wounded, and I think it will be impossible for him to regain the strong levels of support he has had in the past," Pavoncello said.

Source: Xinhua


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