Rome

Berlusconi salvation racks govt

Letta, Alfano meet to avert crisis

Berlusconi salvation racks govt

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, August 21 - Saving Silvio Berlusconi's Senate seat racked Italy's unprecedented left-right government Wednesday as Premier Enrico Letta met Berlusconi's No.2, Deputy Premier Angelino Alfano, in a last-ditch bid to avert the end of the shaky 100-day alliance between traditional foes, forced together after a two-month post-election stalemate. Berlusconi reportedly gave Alfano a mandate for "a last attempt at mediation" to save him and the government. The Senate is set to vote September 9 on stripping three-time premier and media magnate Berlusconi of his place in the upper house according to a new anti-corruption law that kicked in after his August 1 conviction for tax fraud, his first definitive sentence in almost 20 years of battles with magistrates he accuses of left-wing bias. Letta's Democratic Party (PD) has said it will vote Berlusconi out, prompting an ultimatum from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party which claims subjecting Berlusconi to the law, passed by Mario Monti's previous government with backing from the PD and PdL, would breach the Constitution because it would allegedly be applied retroactively. Letta said Tuesday he trusted the PD to make the "right" choice after President Giorgio Napolitano disappointed the PdL last week by saying everyone was equal before the law and Berlusconi's sentence must be implemented. The premier also stressed that the PdL would have to "shoulder the responsibility" for sparking a government crisis to keep its charismatic leader in parliament. Ahead of the meeting with Alfano, Letta was optimistic the government would survive. Observers had speculated the government could continue in its emergency reform work while Berlusconi, despite losing his lawmaker status, steered the PdL back to its roots under its original Forza Italia banner. But PdL hawks prevailed over doves Tuesday night and set a 10-day deadline to avoid Berlusconi's ejection. Letta said ahead of his talks with Alfano that the government's problems could be overcome despite the looming showdown. "I think our country has great opportunities ahead, I trust the sense of responsibility and foresight of all", Letta said, stressing the harmful impact of a crisis on an economy starting to show signs of emerging from its longest post-war recession. "It would be paradoxical", he said, for the government to fall just when it was getting to grips with much-needed preforms including lowering the costs of a discredited political system and measures to stoke growth, attract foreign investment and fight unemployment, especially among the young. The government has also vowed to change a reviled electoral law that produced February's inconclusive result, although the PD and PdL have been squabbling over various proposals. A repeal of an unpopular property tax, Berlusconi's key election pledge, is an even more contentious issue and could itself sink the government even if the two sides somehow get around the PdL leader's ban from office. PdL hawks repeated their warnings ahead of the Letta-Alfano meeting, which was headed into its third hour shortly before eight o'clock. One of Berlusconi's closest aides, Fabrizio Cicchitto, said the government was "at its last ditch". "Letta can warn us but we can warn him, and the PD can't turn the Senate immunity panel into a firing squad," he said. Long-time PdL spokesman Daniele Capezzone said "numerous highly qualified jurists" had voiced "doubts" about the application of the law framed by former justice minister Paola Severino and warned that Letta and the PD "cannot play Pontius Pilate" in the face of the alleged Constitutional breach and the wishes of millions of voters. PD MP Matteo Colaninno responded that expecting the PD to ignore the law and save Berlusconi meant asking it for "banana republic solutions". But Defence Minister Mario Mauro from Monti's Civic Choice party, a former PdL member, made peace overtures, saying "further analysis of the formal aspects of the law's application" would be possible in a "spirit of loyal collaboration". Berlusconi's four-year prison sentence was commuted to one year of community service or house arrest because of an amnesty and due to his age. He has said he will not submit to either forms of the sentence. Berlusconi, who is appealing convictions for sex with an underage prostitute and releasing an illegal wiretap, has said he will not ask for a pardon from Napolitano. He is also reportedly doubtful about an appeal to the Constitutional Court on the Severino law because of his stated belief that the supreme court, which has quashed several laws aimed at ending his legal woes, is also left-wing. With the government's fate in the balance, the Italian media are already speculating about a possible second Letta-led administration backed by the PD, PdL moderates who decide to abandon Berlusconi, and enough disillusioned members of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo to form a majority.

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