|Fini has enough MPs to bring the government down and is widely expected do so in a few weeks time [AFP]
Several ministers have resigned from the Italian government, escalating a political crisis in the coalition of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister.
Among those who quit on Monday are Andrea Ronchi, the Europe minister, Adolfo Urso, the deputy economic development minister, and two junior ministers - all supporters of Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of parliament and a former ally turned rival of Berlusconi.
Fini has enough MPs to bring the government down and is widely expected do so in a few weeks time, when Berlusconi faces confidence votes in parliament.
The prime minister has been under pressure from a series of scandals in recent months - including a row over his role in a police inquiry into a 17-year-old nightclub dancer who said she attended some of his parties.
"We propose a new government, a new majority, a new agenda for reform ... Berlusconi is holing himself up in his palace like in a bunker," Urso said in an interview on the news channel SkyTG24 ahead of the announcement.
Italo Bocchino, a spokesman for Fini's Future and Freedom movement, said in an interview with La Stampa newspaper that there should now be a national unity government without Berlusconi that could include the centre-left opposition.
"We have to look without prejudice and an open mind to the opposition, which should be brought into a national unity government," he said.
"[Berlusconi] is the least qualified to be the head of a national unity government. He always needs an opponent to unify his forces."
A fifth government official, a junior minister for transport, also submitted his resignation in solidarity with the other ministers even though he does not belong to Fini's movement, his spokeswoman said.
Fini called on Berlusconi to resign this month and threatened to pull ministers loyal to him out of the government if the prime minister did not.
|Berlusconi has been under pressure from a series of scandals [EPA]
Berlusconi has fought back, vowing to hold confidence votes in parliament and to fight off his rivals in parliamentary elections if needed.
Fini said on Monday that Italy's ruling class had "lost its sense of dignity, of responsibility of duty that people in public office should have."
Italy's main political forces agreed this weekend that any confidence vote in parliament would only come after politicians approve a budget for 2011 at a tricky time for heavily-indebted Italy on international financial markets.
Debate on the budget is set to start on Tuesday in the lower house but final approval by the upper house may come only later in November or in December and the centre-left opposition says it fears "time-wasting tactics" by Berlusconi.
Despite the political wrangling expected in the coming days, the consensus among experts is that Berlusconi's government - in place since 2008 elections - will eventually fall long before its mandate runs out in 2013.
The crucial question is what exactly will happen after that.
Among the scenarios outlined in recent days are: a new Berlusconi government with a different coalition; an interim technocratic government with a different prime minister; and a centre-left government supported by Fini.
Experts agree that, sooner or later, early elections need to be held.
A poll published in Corriere della Sera on Saturday still gave Berlusconi's People of Freedom party the highest proportion of voting intentions, with 26.5 per cent.
It was followed by the centre-left Democratic Party at 24.2 per cent; the populist Northern League party, the junior coalition partner in government, with 11.8 per cent; and Fini's Future and Freedom movement at 8.1 per cent.