Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi defies critics as support wanes

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REPORTING FROM LONDON -- With support for his government ebbing, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi insisted Friday that he would continue to lead his country because there was ‘no one else capable’ of doing so, the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore reported.

At a news conference broadcast from the Group of 20 summit in Cannes, France, Berlusconi also said neither his country nor his administration was in crisis, even though European officials have piled pressure on him to get Italy’s finances in order to avoid being engulfed by the euro debt crisis.

‘We are really a strong economy,’ he told reporters. ‘Life in Italy is that of a well-to-do country. ... The restaurants are full, it’s difficult to find a seat on a plane.’

‘I don’t think anyone living in Italy feels Italy is a country in crisis,’ he said.


Unfazed by critics of what many consider humiliating International Monetary Fund monitoring of Italy’s anti-deficit measures, which he agreed to during the summit, Berlusconi said the IMF was acting at the invitation of his government.

‘It is a certification of our commitment, not a monitoring process,’ he told reporters.

The BBC reported Friday that IMF officials will be traveling to Italy next week to begin work.

While the Italian leader was busy convincing his American and European counterparts that his government would carry out its promise of quick action to shore up Italy’s budget deficit of $2.6 billion, his political support at home grew perilously weak.

A steady stream of his political supporters have begun joining opposition critics, endangering his parliamentary majority ahead of a planned confidence vote Tuesday in connection with the country’s severe budget reform program.

Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, standing beside Berlusconi at the Cannes news conference, refused to confirm recent remarks attributed to him asking for the premier to step aside, but his anti-Berlusconi feelings are well known.

In Rome, newspapers on Friday reported that two members of the prime minister’s People of Freedom party, Alessio Bonciani and Ida D’Ippolito, had defected and joined a center-right party that does not belong to the government coalition. Another high-profile member of the ruling party, Sen. Carlo Vizzini, also has left and announced that he would not vote for the government Tuesday.

Party member Maurizio Paniz has suggested that the prime minister step aside, while lawmaker Pippo Gianni, another People of Freedom member, threatened to vote against the government.

An open letter from six party members in Wednesday’s daily Corriere della Sera suggested to Berlusconi that he and his party look for a wider consensus and form a new government because the present one was ‘totally inadequate to the task of bringing about the difficult agenda of commitments underwritten before the international European institutions, before Parliament and the Italian people.’

Support from his coalition partners is also shaky. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Northern League party told journalists in Italy on Friday that should ‘the government fall, it’s very simple -– there can only be elections.’


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-- Janet Stobart