Why Italy's government may be on the brink of collapse

In the wake of recent scandals, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces an increasing number of political attacks. His government may soon not have enough parliamentary support to survive.

By , Correspondent

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    Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a press conference following a Cabinet meeting, at the Chigi Palace in Rome, Nov. 5.
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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's days may be numbered. After waves of personal scandals and strong attacks from the progressive opposition, Italy's embattled premier is now facing a much stronger threat from within his right-wing coalition.

Last week, Mr. Berlusconi was accused of having an affair with the 17-year-old daughter of Egyptian immigrants. Berlusconi was also accused of abuse of power when he apparently helped the young woman, who was arrested for petty theft. Berlusconi allegedly secured her release from jail by telling officials that she was related to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

This wasn't the first time Berlusconi has faced accusations of having an affair with a minor. And it wasn't this latest scandal that led to the critical split within his ruling Freedom Party.

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Former key ally and head of Parliament, Gianfranco Fini, split with Berlusconi and founded his own conservative party, Future and Liberty, over allegations that the prime minister attempted to alter the justice system in order to avoid his own trials. "We cannot tolerate laws [laws made for the benefit of a particular person]," said Mr. Fini.

Now, Mr. Berlusconi may simply not have the numbers to keep his government alive. According to Italy's political system, its executive branch must hold the majority in the legislative body.

The government will face a major test tomorrow, when Parliament is set to vote on a no-confidence motion against one of Berlusconi's cabinet members. Culture Minister Sandro Bondi is blamed for the recent collapse of an archaeological site in Pompei, one of Italy's most famous ancient Roman sites. The progressive opposition brought up the no-confidence motion, but some say Fini's Future and Liberty may vote for it as well.

“This government is eventually doomed, the only question is who is going to take the responsibility to make it fall: Fini or Berlusconi?” says Stefano Cappellini, a political commentator for Il Riformista, a progressive daily.

After weeks of strong confrontations, Mr. Fini asked the prime minister to step down. “If Berlusconi doesn't resign," he said, "Future and Liberty will leave the coalition."

Berlusconi replied by asking Fini to resign. “If he thinks the government is over he should take his own responsibilities and [make it fall by] voting against it in the parliament," said the prime minister, according to AdnKronos news agency.

“I am not sure whether Thursday's vote may bring the government down. But now it's clear that all parties involved want to bring this coalition to an end and to go to early elections, possibly in March,” says Mr. Cappellini.

“On one hand, Berlusconi wants Fini to bring the government down so that he can portray him as a traitor during the next campaign,” argues Cappellini. “On the other hand Fini wants to slowly wear out Berlusconi's government in order to force him to resign and portray him as a loser in the next elections.”

Either way, Cappellini doubts that Berlusconi will be able to withstand his latest political crisis. “Eventually the prime minister will pay the highest price”

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