Analysts agree that Berlusconi would pass the confidence vote on Wednesday  [EPA]

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, seems set to maintain his hold on power after members of a breakaway group from his centre-right coalition said they would back him in a confidence vote in parliament.

"We will vote with the confidence motion," Benedetto Della Vedova, a member of a group led by Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the lower house, which split from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party in July, said on Wednesday.

Italo Bocchino, Fini's senior lieutenant, said that the Fini group had decided to vote with the government in a meeting after Berlusconi made a plea in parliament for national unity.

The under fire Italian prime minister had called on parliamentarians to back him to spare Italy political instability at a time of financial woes.

"It is absolutely in the interests of our country not to risk a period of instability in this moment where the crisis is not yet over," Berlusconi said.

He also outlined his government's goals for the remaining years of the legislature, including tax reforms, measures to fight organised crime and illegal immigration, and a politically delicate plan to overhaul the justice system.

Justice system

Berlusconi said the justice system, notoriously slow, must be sped up and that the country's senior officials must receive immunity from prosecution, a contentious issue since he is the defendant in two trials in Milan that have been put on hold thanks to a government measure.

Berlusconi, who has a history of legal woes stemming from his media empire in Milan, has always said that he is the innocent victim of politically driven magistrates.

While he touched on that argument in his parliamentary address, he stayed away from the emphatic attacks against the judiciary that he has launched in the past, at one point calling magistrates the "cancer of democracy".

Instead, he promised more funds to help clear the backlog of cases pending before courtrooms across Italy and averted potentially divisive details of how to guarantee a measure of immunity to top officials.

The split with Fini, who took 40 lower house deputies and senators with him, left Berlusconi  without a secure majority, but it seems that he will be able to weather the storm in the short term.

Outside parliament, Alessandra Mussolini, of Italy's Freedom People Party, said she also expected the vote to go in Berlusconi's favour.

'Serious crisis'

However, opposition politicians suggested that the bitter dispute is unlikely to resolve itself sufficiently for the administration to survive until the next scheduled election in 2013.
   
"Today we are looking at a very serious crisis in the majority and I think it will be very difficult to resolve it," Roberto Colaninno, an opposition politican, said.

"The confidence vote, that I imagine the government will win but I don't think it will be decisive for the future of this government, this majority. An open crisis will remain."

Public figures ranging from the head of the main employers' federation Confindustria to unions and senior members of the Catholic church have warned that the feud has distracted the government from the task of fostering reform, growth and jobs.

Source: Agencies