Berlusconi's party sees govt crisis approaching

Napolitano 'trusts' centre-right leader not to sink executive

Berlusconi's party sees govt crisis approaching

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, September 5 - Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) Party said Thursday the government of centre-left Democratic Party (PD) would fall if the PD votes to eject Berlusconi from the Senate. One of the media magnate-turned poltician's closest aides reiterated that the government will collapse if the PD votes to have the ex-premier stripped of his Senate seat after a tax-fraud conviction. "If the PD does not do its duty to take an in-depth look at the judicial questions and declares that Berlusconi should be stripped of his seat, the government is over," said Francesco Nitto Palma, a senior member of the PdL, which has been in a fragile government alliance with long-term foe the PD to end a two-month post-election stalemate in April. Nitto Palma is also chair of the Senate justice committee. Berlusconi risks losing his parliamentary seat under the terms of an anti-corruption law approved in 2012, which bans anyone with a conviction like the three-time premier's from holding office for six years. The PdL claims the law is being applied retroactively in Berlusconi's case, although it became effective before his definitive four-year conviction for fraud on film rights for his Mediaset empire on August 1. The PdL says the offences for which Berlusconi was convicted took place before the law was passed, and so it is being applied retroactively, which they say is against the Italian Constitution. The PD has dismissed arguments from jurists sympathetic to the PD as "quibbling" and says the law must be applied to Berlusconi as it would be to anyone else. A Senate panel will start examining the case Monday and is expected to reach its conclusions soon, unless an appeal by Berlusconi to the Constitutional Court is admitted. A full Senate vote is required to make the ban effective but the PdL says it will not come to that if the PD votes against Berlusconi on the panel, because it would immediately pull out of the unprecedented left-right coalition. PdL Senate Whip Renato Schifani said he could "see the moment of crisis approaching". He scoffed at the notion the PD could form a new coalition with parts of comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) but added that if a "wonky, patched-together and contradictory" alliance was set up, it would not be able to pass key reforms and the PdL would be in "staunch" opposition. The Pdl would prefer another election instead of that scenario, Schifani said, even with an electoral law widely blamed for February's inconclusive result, which Letta's government had pledged to reform. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was reported to have said late Thursday he hoped a government crisis would be averted. The government, in whose formation Napolitano played a key role, has had the president's unwavering support, presidential sources said. Napolitano was reported to have said he "trusted" Berlusconi not to sink the government. Presidential sources said Napolitano is not weighing what to do in the event of a crisis because Berlusconi has stated he will continue to back the government. A crisis would bring "very grave risks" for Italy, which is struggling to emerge from a vicious recession and needs deep reforms, Napolitano was reported to have said. The PD said it would be "a crime" to scupper the government amid efforts to boost the economy and just after a hard-won agreement to scrap an unpopular property tax, whose abolition was Berlusconi's election rallying call. Premier Letta said he was not thinking about a looming crisis but concentrating on the goals to be met at the G20 summit he is attending in St Petersburg. "I would hurt Italy if I got distracted from these goals," Letta said. But he acknowledged that a crisis would "return Italy to the dock" of countries having to defend themselves against financial speculation, reviving fears that forced Berlusconi from office in late 2011. The Mediaset conviction, Berlusconi's first definitive verdict in 20 years of battling magistrates he says are left-wing, is not the only case pending against him. He is appealing a seven-year sentence for paying an underage prostitute for sex and a one-year term for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap involving a bank takeover and a previous centre-left leader. 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 Mediaset sentence - cut from four by an intervening amnesty - under house arrest or doing community service. He has refused to serve it in either form and is busy revamping the PdL to relaunch it under its initial name, Forza Italia. A Palermo appeals court on Thursday issued its explanation for a March verdict for Mafia association by a former close aide of Berlusconi's, ex-Senator Marcello Dell'Utri. Dell'Utri sealed "a pact of protection" with Cosa Nostra for Berlusconi at a meeting in May 1974, according to the explanation of the seven-year sentence. That meeting "formed the genesis of the relationship that linked the businessman (Berlusconi) and the Mafia with Dell'Utri's mediation". Dell'Utri, 71, is appealing against the conviction to the supreme Court of Cassation. In Italy convictions are not considered definitive until the two-tier appeals process has been exhausted. The March verdict was the result of a retrial after the Cassation said Dell'Utri's legal rights were not respected in the previous appeal. The court ruling said Dell'Utri was the intermediary with Cosa Nostra for the ex-premier, handing on "substantial sums" of money for protection. The explanation also reiterated that Berlusconi had hired an alleged stable manager, the late Mafia member Vittorio Mangano, not for his knowledge of horses but to provide protection. Former Senator Dell'Utri is the former head of the media magnate's advertising arm who is credited with creating the three-time premier's first party, Forza Italia, in 1993, six months before it swept to victory in general elections.

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