Rome

Letta meets Napolitano in bid to avert crisis

PD, PdL still at loggerheads over saving Berlusconi's seat

Letta meets Napolitano in bid to avert crisis

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, August 22 - Premier Enrico Letta met President Giorgio Napolitano Thursday in a last-ditch bid to avert a government crisis caused by Silvio Berlusconi's ban from holding public office. Letta's Democratic Party (PD) is turning a deaf ear to appeals from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party to refrain from voting Berlusconi out of the Senate on September 9 as a consequence of his August 1 conviction for tax fraud, his first definitive sentence in almost 20 years of battles with a judiciary he claims is left-wing. "No one will make us change our minds, justice must be equal for all," said PD leader Guglielmo Epifani. Berlusconi is insisting he must be allowed to continue as PdL leader and can only do that as a Senator. Otherwise, the PdL will pull the plug on the 100-day administration Napolitano forced into existence after a two-month post-election impasse caused by comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement's refusal to team up with the PD. Each side in the unprecedented left-right coalition is trying to blame the other for a crisis that Italians, struggling to get out of the longest post-war recession, do not want. "They're going to say it's my fault if the PdL ministers quit because of the judicial massacre of a leader elected by millions of Italians," Berlusconi said. "But I say: if two friends are in a boat and one of them throws the other overboard, whose fault is it if the boat lists?" According to the three-time premier, "the Constitution and good sense offer many paths". The PdL claims to have many jurists, "even on the left", on its side in arguing the ban should not be applied retroactively. But former PD leader Dario Franceschini, minister for relations with parliament, said "We must respond to threats and ultimatums by affirming a very simple principle: legality and respect for the rules cannot be bartered away for the survival of a government. Never". After his meeting with Napolitano, Letta said it had been about the "prospects" of the government. Later, Napolitano met Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri, sparking speculation he might be looking at ways to provide Berlusconi with a judicial life-belt. But Napolitano's office said he and the minister had only reviewed measures to stem prison overcrowding and other pending justice bills. The president also met Economy Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni, who is seeking cash for a budget hole opened up by a floated, but still contentious, repeal of the IMU property tax, Berlusconi's flagship electoral promise. The PD hopes Letta will at least last long enough to push through much-needed reforms such as changing a dysfunctional electoral law that produced February's inconclusive result. According to polls, voters and the business community say another election is the last thing Italy needs. But Grillo, who rode a huge protest vote to finish third in the elections, was rubbing his hands at the sight of the PD and PdL showdown, likening it to the trademark stand-offs that leave bloody bodies splayed at the end of Quentin Tarantino movies. "The two allies are about to tear each other apart, like the gangsters in the final scenes of Reservoir Dogs," Grillo said in a blog post. "And perhaps we are finally at the end of the match," the rabble-rousing comedian added. "Those who caused the country to fail are in government and want to remain at any cost. "Berlusconi's conviction, perhaps unexpected, broke the bank. "There is the possibility of new elections, to turn a page after 20 years of darkness and decline for the country". Grillo called for a snap vote and said Napolitano should quit because the unnatural national-unity government he cobbled together between long-time foes had failed. The Genoese comic said he was confident M5S would win under the current electoral law.

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