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Italy in new crisis as center-right ministers quit

AFP-JIJI

Center-right ministers Saturday resigned from Italy’s fragile coalition government, unleashing a fresh political crisis after what Prime Minister Enrico Letta called a “crazy act” of encouragement by their leader, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

All five ministers of the People of Freedom (PDL) party took the decision at Berlusconi’s urging, said deputy premier and PDL party secretary Angelino Alfano.

The flamboyant Berlusconi had dismissed as “unacceptable” a demand by Letta on Friday for parliament to express support for the government this week, in a bid to end a crisis that has driven the bickering ruling coalition to the brink of collapse.

Letta’s government was cobbled together following a two-month standoff after an inconclusive general election in February, and while the government has launched major reforms, it has been hobbled by the tensions.

Letta, of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), has won the confidence of financial markets by managing to keep together the right-left coalition.

But a brewing revolt among Berlusconi’s backers boiled over Thursday when they threatened to resign over the media mogul’s legal problems.

A Senate committee was preparing to vote on whether to eject Berlusconi, 76, from the chamber after he was sentenced to a year in prison for tax fraud, a ruling that was upheld by Italy’s top court in August.

His allies said the vote would be the ultimate consequence of a long-running left-wing plot aimed at destroying his political career.

On Friday Letta told a Cabinet meeting, tasked with approving key measures to rein in the recession-hit country’s budget deficit, that no further legislation will be enacted until the political crisis is resolved.

The Cabinet had convened to determine how to delay a controversial planned rise in value added tax, but the meeting ended in disarray amid the escalating tension over Berlusconi’s tax fraud conviction.

As a result, the VAT hike from 21 percent to 22 percent will go ahead, with effect from Tuesday, as economists worry that it will dampen consumption.

In encouraging the PDL ministers to resign, Berlusconi said they should not be “complicit in the latest vexation imposed on Italians by the left.”

He added: “The prime minister’s decision yesterday to freeze government action, thus leading to the rise in the VAT, is a serious violation of the government pact.”

Letta retorted: “To try to justify his crazy and irresponsible act, aimed fully at protecting his personal interests, Berlusconi is . . . using the VAT as an alibi.”

Three-time premier Berlusconi, who was convicted Aug. 1, is to serve the sentence at home or by doing community service. But the most biting punishment for the billionaire, who has dominated Italian politics in or out of power for the past two decades, is that he will henceforth be ineligible for public office.

With the PDL ministers unlikely to return, the next moves on the political chessboard are uncertain. Letta could try to form another government, counting on various defections and the support of leftwing groups.

Former comedian Beppe Grillo, head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, repeated his call for fresh elections, but these will likely result in just as great a stalemate unless the electoral law is first modified.

President Giorgio Napolitano will play an essential mediating role in the coming days.