Rome

Truce in Berlusconi row that threatens Letta govt

Ex-premier will lose Senate seat anyway

Truce in Berlusconi row that threatens Letta govt

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, September 11 - The partners in Italy's unprecedented left-right government have agreed to delay a showdown over ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's ejection from the Senate after a tax-fraud conviction - although the media magnate will be forced out anyway when his ban from office is recalculated. Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party was on the brink of scuppering Democratic Party (PD) Premier Enrico Letta, blaming the PD for the demise of his five-month executive because of an alleged rush to justice on a Senate panel. The PD was insisting it would vote to remove the three-time premier according to an anti-corruption law both sides voted last year as part of efforts to clean up politics after a wave of scandals. The PdL accused the PD of ignoring an appeal to the Constitutional Court on the grounds that the law was being applied retroactively, a contention the PD rejects. Amid rising fears of a government crisis, the foes-turned-allies agreed to prolong discussion on the panel, which is now expected to take about a week to reach conclusions on the tangled legal arguments being deployed. But PdL House Whip Renato Brunetta repeated Wednesday that the shaky alliance would be toppled if the PD members of the panel vote to recommend the Senate should strip Berlusconi of his seat. "If the PD insists (on doing that), it will be the end," he said. Strains continued on the panel Wednesday as the PD and PdL were unable to agree on a timetable. "It will now be up to the chair to propose one tomorrow (Thursday)," a panel source told ANSA. The chair of the panel, Dario Stéfano, reiterated that the law instructed his panel to take an "immediate" decision - another point the PdL is strongly contesting. Some Italian media commentators have been puzzled as to why the PdL should have made the panel vote a deal-breaker, since Berlusconi is set to lose his seat anyway when a Milan court of appeals recalculates his ban on October 18, when it is expected to cut it from five to three years. There has been speculation Berlusconi was poised for a snap election, riding his recent success in getting a hated property tax abolished, but then pulled back from the brink when his in-house polling showed voters didn't like the idea of returning to the polls nine months after February's inconclusive elections. The media have also said President Giorgio Napolitano, who knocked heads together to form the unnatural alliance in April, may have had an influential role behind the scenes in averting a crisis that would hurt an economy showing signs of emerging from its longest postwar recession and halt the much-needed institutional and political reforms which the PD-PdL have started to enact. Among these is a new electoral law to replace the one widely blamed for producing February's stalemate. Another is to slash the number of MPs and turn the Senate from a law-making body with equal status to the Lower House into a regional assembly. A bill including these reforms is slowly making its way through parliament. Berlusconi, meanwhile, will continue to head the centre right even after he loses his Senate seat, the PdL insisted this week. There have been suggestions he may decide to pull out of the upper house before suffering the indignity of ejection. Some commentators have said this might make it easier for Napolitano to pardon him or commute his four-year sentence for tax fraud, the first binding verdict in 20 years of battles against magistrates he says are left-wing. The term was cut to one year because of a previous amnesty and 76-year-old Berlusconi, not liable to do jail time because of his age, has to choose between spending the year under house arrest or doing some form of community service. Despite the conviction, the billionaire mogul is set to rejuvenate the PdL under its original, 1994 name, Forza Italia. Commentators have said there is nothing stopping him continuing as the centre right's charismatic leader and have likened him, in this case, to the rabble-rousing head of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, comedian Beppe Grillo, who exerts a guru-like influence over the new maverick force despite not being eligible for office because of an old conviction for vehicular homicide. The conviction for dodging taxes on film rights at his Mediaset media empire is not Berlusconi's only legal problem. He is appealing against a seven-year sentence and a life ban from office for paying an underage prostitute nicknamed Ruby for sex and, in a separate case, a one-year term for involvement in the publication of a wiretap that hurt a political rival. He may also face trial for allegedly bribing a Senator to change sides to contribute to the fall of a previous centre-left government. But Berlusconi, while unable to run for office, is still seen as likely to fight the next election against the PD's leader-in-waiting, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, who polls say is currently Italy's most popular politician. Premier Letta reiterated the importance of stabilising the government Wednesday, saying doubts about its future could cost Italy one billion euros by the end of the year.

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