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Berlusconi insists he can still lead Italy

By Frances D'Emilio
Associated Press / November 6, 2011

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ROME—Premier Silvio Berlusconi insisted Sunday he still commands enough support in Parliament to enact urgently needed measures to save Italy from financial disaster despite defections from his shaky coalition.

"We maintain that there are no alternatives to our government until 2013," when elections are due, Berlusconi said, addressing a political gathering by audio hookup.

He was defying increasingly loud calls in the country, including from some from his own coalition's ranks, to either broaden his government's forces by bringing in opposition centrists or to have Berlusconi step down so that an interim government could be appointed until early elections could be held.

Berlusconi dismissed both scenarios as offensive to the electorate, which had resoundingly voted for him in 2008 elections.

"I don't see (the possibility) of broad backing for a leader put in place to the disrespect of Italians," Berlusconi said. An interim government, "with a puppet as premier," was likewise unacceptable, he added.

This week brings the first in a string of votes in Parliament on reforms and other stopgap measures to get Italy's finances in order and revive the dormant economy.

The premier insisted that his latest sounding out of his allies in parliament "has verified that we have the numbers, for sure," to pass the measures. But should the government fall short in the votes, Berlusconi said, early elections would be the only alternative.

Still, "We don't want elections. We want to govern," he added.

There is growing concern Berlusconi no longer commands enough loyalty among lawmakers to ensure the quick passage that European and international financial officials say Rome must achieve to avoid falling victim to a dramatic debt crisis like that bringing Greece to its knees.

During an economic summit in France last week, Berlusconi asked the International Monetary Fund to monitor the country's reform efforts, a humiliating step for the eurozone's third-largest economy.

If his forces lose upcoming votes on the measures, the Italian president, who has repeatedly called on Berlusconi to take decisive steps immediately to rescue the nation, could intervene and rule that it is time for a new government.

Some skeptical that Berlusconi is up to the task of rescuing the country from potential financial disaster depict him as being in denial. The premier in recent public comments described Italy as an affluent country where "the restaurants are full."

But Sen. Giuseppe Pisanu, who is among a steadily growing number of longtime Berlusconi supporters now questioning his leadership ability, told a rally of centrists Sunday that the benchmark for Italy should instead be "the charity soup kitchens that are full" of needy.