Italy's Berlusconi faces continued antagonism in wake of confidence vote

10:15, December 18, 2010      

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Just days after winning a dramatic confidence vote that allowed him to stay in power, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday was named in a judicial probe that alleges the possible revelation of state secrets, while critics in parliament have already started organizing their opposition.

Berlusconi's narrow 314-311 parliamentary victory in Tuesday's vote was controversial, sparking charges of vote buying and widespread violent protests in Rome and other Italian cities that reportedly cost more than 20 million euros in damages.

If Berlusconi had lost the vote he would have been forced to step down. But while the victory guarantees Berlusconi at least a few more months in office, it has not stemmed the tide of actions against him.

The latest legal probe, which is taking place in Milan, does not directly focus on Berlusconi, but it could still be embarrassing for him.

It involves allegations that the prime minister received stolen property and possibly revealed classified state secrets in connection with taped phone conversations between opposition politician Piero Fassino and banker Giovanni Consorte. Paolo Berlusconi, the prime minister's brother, was also named in the probe.

Berlusconi is already under investigation in more than a half dozen other cases, including alleged influence peddling, cronyism, abuses of power, bribery, and illegal business practices.

As prime minister Berlusconi is immune from prosecution in those cases, but a court is set to review that protection early in 2011, and it is possible he could be stripped of that protection.

Meanwhile, the opposition leaders who fell three votes short of unseating Berlusconi in Tuesday's confidence vote have started the process of building a stronger coalition to oppose the prime minister.

Former Berlusconi allies Gianfranco Fini and Pier Ferdinando Casini announced Thursday they would form a political bloc to take a united stand against Berlusconi. They said the alliance would include more than 100 lawmakers in the 630-member lower house.

The local media speculated that the Fini-Casini parliamentary bloc could be the cornerstone of a centrist group that could also include allies of Fassino and former Rome mayors Walter Veltroni and Francesco Rutelli in what newspapers are starting to refer to as a "third political pole" between Berlusconi's alliance on the right and the more left-leaning parties.

But Berlusconi scoffed at the threat that such an alliance could represent, calling the risk it posed to his hold on power as "non-existent" in an interview televised by the Mediaset broadcast giant Berlusconi controls.

In the interview, Berlusconi said his allies were meeting with "dissatisfied parliamentarians" from the Fini-Casini camp in an effort to persuade them to shift their alliance to his coalition. He said he expects around 10 lawmakers to make the move.

Opposition leaders were quoted in the local press calling Berlusconi's remarks "a fantasy."

If Berlusconi did indeed gain the support of 10 lawmakers it would be a big help in strengthening what Tuesday's vote revealed to be a volatile three-vote majority. But even if his majority were increased, analysts said it is unlikely it would be able to stay on its feet for more than a few months.

The prevailing consensus is that Italy may be headed for new elections, probably in March or April 2011. If that happens, there is no guarantee that it would strengthen Berlusconi's hand: electoral modeling from before the confidence vote showed that the most likely outcome was that Berlusconi could win a majority in the lower house but lose control of the Senate, where he currently enjoys a comfortable cushion.

Berlusconi allies are said to be exploring the possibility of holding elections for only the lower house, but legal experts say such a move would be constitutionally dubious.

Another possibility would be for Berlusconi to court the support of either Fini or Casini by offering to make significant changes in his legislative agenda and possibly offering a high- visibility position in his government.

But pundits say that is unlikely to take place until after the Christmas and New Year holidays, when parliamentarians returns en masse to the capital and tempers have cooled.

Source: Xinhua
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