Berlusconi defiant as key vote looms

Italian PM dismisses reports he plans to quit, but parliamentary vote on Tuesday could take matters out of his hands.

    Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, has rejected reports that he is on the brink of resigning from office on the eve of a crucial vote that could bring down his government and effectively end the media tycoon's turbulent political career.

    In a comment posted on his Facebook page on Monday, Berlusconi said rumours reported in the Italian media that he was close to quitting were "baseless".

    Two journalists close to Berlusconi earlier said they believed he would resign within hours, with his centre-right coalition on the brink of collapse ahead of a crucial public finance vote on Tuesday.

    Facing a revolt by both his coalition supporters and some within his own party on a bill on which he has already been defeated once, Berlusconi spent much of the weekend scrambling to re-assemble a functioning parliamentary majority.

    "That Silvio Berlusconi is about to step down is now clear to everybody, it's a matter of hours, some say minutes," Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of the Il Foglio daily, said in a video posted on the newspaper's website.

    Another journalist for centre-right daily Libero, Franco Bechis, also said on Twitter that Berlusconi was about to resign.

    'Last days of Caesar'

    Al Jazeera's Claudio Lavanga, reporting from Rome, said: "It's starting to look like the last days of Caesar here in Rome, with many members of Berlusconi's coalition saying that they are ready to turn their back and inflict that fatal blow in Tuesday's vote."

    Reports of Berlusconi's imminent demise come with Italy deeply embroiled in the eurozone debt crisis, with benchmark government bond yields, the rate at which governments can borrow money, rising on Monday to their highest levels since 1997 at 6.67 per cent.

    Many analysts say yields above seven per cent would make funding costs unsustainable for Italy's huge public debt, one of the highest in the world.

    Italy has the third biggest economy in the eurozone and its political turmoil and debt worries are seen as a huge threat in the wider crisis facing the continent's single currency.

    'Traitors to Italy'

    Defeat in Tuesday's vote will probably lead either to Berlusconi's immediate resignation or to an order from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to call a confidence vote which he would probably also lose.

    In addition, Italy's centre-left opposition said it was preparing a no-confidence motion in Berlusconi. It may abstain in the pending vote to expose Berlusconi's lack of support without blocking an essential measure.

    Apart from offering wavering deputies government jobs, Berlusconi is branding rebels as traitors to Italy at a moment of crisis and saying that if he falls the country must go to early elections, something many ruling deputies do not want.

    "Berlusconi is bluffing in a last desperate attempt to save himself. He no longer has a majority in the Chamber," said Dario Franceschini of the main opposition Democratic party.

    Roberto Maroni, the interior minister and a senior member of Berlusconi's Northern League coalition allies, said the writing seemed to be on the wall.

    "The latest news leads me to think that the majority no longer exists and that it is useless (for Berlusconi) to be obstinate, " Maroni said.

    The League also said early elections were the only course if the government fell.

    'We still have a majority'

    Berlusconi has remained defiant in the face of predictions of his demise, saying on Sunday: "We have checked in the last few hours and the numbers are certain, we still have a majority."

    But newspapers have estimated the number of potential defectors at between 20 and 40, which would be more than enough to topple the government.

    "I'm optimistic and I think we'll hold on to the majority," Gianfranco Rotondi, a minister without portfolio, told reporters after meeting the prime minister at his home outside Milan.

    "If we have the majority we'll carry on, otherwise there'll be elections," Rotondi said.

    But James Walston, a professor at the American University of Rome, told Al Jazeera that it looked less and less likely that Berlusconi would survive the vote.

    "His closest advisers are telling him, 'For God's sake, step down before you are pushed'. He will almost certainly not have a majority for Tuesday's vote," Walston said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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