Tension soars over PD call for Berlusconi to quit

PdL says Epifani is undermining Letta government

Tension soars over PD call for Berlusconi to quit

(By Paul Virgo) Rome, August 7 - Sparks were flying within the grand coalition supporting Premier Enrico Letta's fragile government on Wednesday after the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) said Silvio Berlusconi should end his political career after a tax-fraud conviction was upheld. Last week's verdict by the supreme Court of Cassation has put huge strain on Letta's executive, which needs the support of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party and his own PD to stay afloat. PdL Senate whip Renato Schifani and House whip Renato Brunetta met President Giorgio Napolitano on Monday to discuss ways to make it possible for three-time premier Berlusconi to stay active in politics after the four-year prison sentence - three of which have been commuted because of an amnesty - comes into effect in October. Berlusconi is not in danger of actually going to prison, as he is over 70 and will be given the option of serving the remaining year of the sentence under house arrest or doing community service. The terms of an anti-corruption law passed last year would probably make him ineligible to run in future elections, although some supporters have said it should not apply to the three-time premier as the original sentence pre-dates the legislation. He looks set to be stripped of his status as Senator sooner or later. A five-year ban on holding public office that came with the tax-fraud conviction has been sent back to the Milan appeals court for review. So PD Secretary Guglielmo Epifani said the 76-year-old media magnate should now accept that his long spell as the dominant figure of Italian politics is over. "I can't see any other option but for him to accept the sentence and the effects it produces," Epifani said in an interview published in Wednesday's edition of Corriere della Sera. "There are no other roads". The PdL, which has said it will continue to support Letta's government after threatening beforehand to sink it if the conviction was upheld, accused Epifani of undermining the executive. "Epifani's comments inflame the political climate at a time when it's necessary to cool it down," said Schifani. "It's not a provocation but almost. We don't need lessons from anyone". Berlusconi and his supporters say last week's verdict is the result of a campaign of persecution by left-wing elements in the judiciary that started when the billionaire embarked on a political career two decades ago. The ex-premier said at a rally on Sunday that the PdL will keep supporting the government, while demanding it implement reforms of the justice system. When asked whether his stance could put the government in peril, Epifani told Corriere that "the principle of legality in a democratic state comes before any political assessment". PdL MP and former education minister Mariastella Gelmini said the PD leader was being inconsistent. "If, on one hand, Epifani says he's worried about the government's stability, on the other, the interview he gave Corriere is his personal contribution to making it shake," she said. The PdL's national coordinator, former minister Sandro Bondi, at the weekend threatened that there could be a form of "civil war" in Italy if a way is not found to keep Berlusconi in the political fray, earning himself a stiff reproach from Napolitano. On Tuesday sources at Napolitano's office called for an end to "intrusions" as he considers the situation with Berlusconi after newspaper reports on what he might do appeared in the press. There have been calls from some PdL figures, including Brunetta, for Napolitano to grant Berlusconi a pardon, although this appears unlikely for many reasons. These include the fact that Berlusconi is appealing against two other criminal convictions, a seven-year sentence for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and a one-year term for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap. It may also be seen as a delegitimisation of the judiciary if Napolitano grants a pardon soon after the supreme court of Cassation's ruling. A Senate commission will meet later on Wednesday to discuss whether to strip Berlusconi of his status as Senator. However, a vote on turfing the 76-year-old billionaire from the Upper House is likely to be postponed until September.

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