Fresh strains hit Letta's fledgling government

Splits on Berlusconi 'ineligiblity', wiretap bills

Fresh strains hit Letta's fledgling government

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, May 16 - Fresh strains hit Enrico's Letta's fledgling right-left government Thursday with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) suggesting centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) leader and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi should not be allowed to serve as Senator because of a 1950s law barring the holder of government licenses from working in government. The two strange bedfellows, who almost tied in February's general election, also clashed over the PdL's revived controversial efforts to restrict the use and publication of police wiretaps. PD Senate Whip Luigi Zanda told bishops' daily l'Avvenire that a so-far never-applied legal bar to Berlusconi's holding public office because he has a government license to run three TV channels should be considered "properly this time around". "According to (an Italian) law (of 1957) Silvio Berlusconi is ineligible for office because he is a (government) licensee," Zanda said. Anna Maria Bernini, interim spokesperson for Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party, said Zanda's words were "mines planted under the political ground the Letta government is acting on". She claimed Zanda was "emulating the fanaticism" of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) which came third in the general election and has repeatedly called for the ineligibility law to be enforced. After Zanda's sally, M5S Senate Whip Vito Crimi reiterated: "We're ready to vote for ineligibility, we think the issue should be tabled as quickly as possible". PdL bigwig, former minister Altero Matteoli, said the issue could topple the government. "If the PD and M5S vote for ineligibility, we'll all go home," the head of the Senate labour committee said. This prompted Zanda to stress that "my view is my own, personal one, and does not bind the party at all. I've been saying this for 10 years". "My opinion will not affect government stability," he said. It was in any case unlikely that the PD would press on the issue as Berlusconi is a linchpin in the government. Long-time enemies PD and PdL forged their unprecedented alliance after two months of post-election stalemate in April. Berlusconi's legal woes, including a trial for alleged sex with a minor, and differences over tax reform were already putting pressure on Letta's administration. The 'ineligibility' issue was revived after Berlusconi's ownership of Italy's three main non-State TV channels helped boost his recent political comeback. His flagship channel aired a programme Sunday that presented his defence in the Milan sex trial, sparking controversy. The prosecutor in that trial on Monday requested a six-year jail term and a life ban from public office. The PD is now also worried about two bills the PdL resurrected Wednesday to allegedly 'gag' the judiciary with a new restrictive law on wiretaps. "That gagging law is not among the government's priorities," said Zanda. "What we should do, however, is cut down on leaks of inappropriate wiretaps which have nothing to do with criminal offences to the press". On tax reform, Letta unveiled plans Wednesday to scrap a June payment of a property tax called IMU on primary residences. But he stopped short of extending the move to factories, saying EU-mandated budget restrictions would not allow it. PdL ministers went into a huddle Wednesday night with some of them determined to battle the PD but Berlusconi reportedly called them to order, the Italian media said. Berlusconi campaigned on a pledge to scrap IMU altogether and repay last year's revenues but has shown signs recently he is willing to reach a deal with the PD. The three-time premier's insistence on the emergency government despite initial and strong resistance from the PD has allowed him to pose as a statesman who puts Italy's interests first, his supporters say. President Giorgio Napolitano, who forged the unlikely alliance after being re-elected following a PD internal rebellion, on Thursday reiterated the government must move quickly to pass urgent reforms and try to revive an economy which is in its longest recession on record. Napolitano praised the two main political parties for making Letta's government possible but warned that elements in the political class have not realised the country is on the "razor's edge". The president said in an interview published in Rome-based daily Il Messaggero that he saw the start of new government as "serious and serene" and that Letta was not letting himself "be intimidated by polemics or incidents along the way". But the head of State added that it was not easy for the forces within government to "live together" as "the parties do not stop reacting to events, each on their own way". He also said that: "some people don't realise that we are on the razor's edge with respect to Brussels". Letta's government is hoping to convince the European Commission to remove its excessive-deficit procedure against Italy, with it forecasting that the deficit-to-GDP ratio will be just below the permitted 3% threshold this year, at 2.9%. Letta's predecessor, Mario Monti, helped steer Italy out of the centre of the eurozone debt crisis at the helm of an emergency technocrat administration. But the country is seen as vulnerable to 'contagion' from problems in other countries because of its massive public debt of over two trillion euros. Napolitano also called on the parties to have measured reactions to criminal trials, a comment that seems directed at the PdL, with Berlusconi involved in a number of cases aside from the sex trial. "The fewer disordered reactions there are, the better," Napolitano said. Italy has an "acute need" for institutional reform, he added. Premier Letta has said institutional reforms to make Italy easier to govern are a priority for his government. These reforms should include a new election law to replace the much-criticised current one that failed to produce a clear winner in February's general election. The measures will also look to change the current parliamentary set-up in which all laws must be approved by both the House and Senate. This is blamed by many for being one of the major sources of dysfunction for Italy's institutions. "Renewal of our institutions and of our institutional representatives is what our country has an acute need of," Napolitano said.

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