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Berlusconi’s grip on power weakens as 4 ministers quit

No-confidence votes expected in the coming weeks

In the most recent scandal, Berlusconi came under scrutiny over his ties to a Moroccan teenager nicknamed Ruby Rubacuori, or “Ruby the heart-stealer.” In the most recent scandal, Berlusconi came under scrutiny over his ties to a Moroccan teenager nicknamed Ruby Rubacuori, or “Ruby the heart-stealer.” (Associated Press)
By Alessandra Rizzo
Associated Press / November 16, 2010

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ROME — For Silvio Berlusconi, the question no longer seems whether he will be forced from power, but when.

The Italian leader, who has survived prostitution scandals and corruption investigations faces no-confidence votes in coming weeks that he appears to have little, if any, chance of surviving.

Yesterday, four members of the government quit, increasing the prime minister’s isolation at a time when the man who once was his closest ally is now calling for his head.

“There’s no doubt that the government will not last,’’ said James Walston, a political analyst of the American University of Rome. “There is some doubt as to exactly when it will finish.’’

Crisis has long been part of the political landscape in Italy, which has a history of revolving-door governments. Berlusconi’s dominance of Italian politics — he has been premier three times in the past 16 years — has been remarkable, and so, in some ways, would be his departure.

But few would count him out for good, given that Italian politics is full of comebacks, and Berlusconi is a master of that art.

Berlusconi, 74, has been locked in a bitter battle with former ally Gianfranco Fini, who has the numbers to bring the government down. Fini had recently urged Berlusconi to resign and yesterday carried out his threat to pull men loyal to him from the government.

A minister, a deputy minister, and two undersecretaries who formed Fini’s delegation in the government stepped down en masse.

“The resignations are irrevocable,’’ said Adolfo Urso, outgoing deputy minister. “We want to end a political phase and . . . open a new one.’’

While the resignations do not sink the government, they escalate the battle with Fini, a younger, charismatic right-wing leader, and further weaken the premier.

“It’s not just a majority or a government that’s coming to an end: It’s the adventure of a lonely man,’’ said Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily. “Berlusconi’s loneliness is what today strikes the most.’’

The confidence votes are expected to be held after lawmakers pass the budget, probably by mid-December. In the ever-shifting Italian political landscape, many politicians are already plotting their next moves. Fini is creating a new party and looking to form a coalition with other small parties in hopes of drawing moderate, center-right voters away from Berlusconi.

Berlusconi still has a slim majority in the Senate. But it is in the lower house he risks more, as his coalition does not have a majority without Fini’s votes.

Fini, 58, the cofounder with Berlusconi of the People of Freedom party, had a spectacular fallout with the premier last summer. The former neo-Fascist was effectively expelled from the party and created a breakaway parliamentary group.

Fini, also speaker of the lower house, has repeatedly said he considers the current government to be effectively over.

If Berlusconi loses the confidence vote, even in just one house, he has to resign, opening up the possibility of early elections next spring, two years ahead of schedule.

But before dissolving Parliament and calling an election, the president can ask Berlusconi to form a new government or even tap a new prime minister to lead a new government with a revised center-right coalition.

Berlusconi, however, has rejected the possibility of a government led by another politician from his own coalition, maintaining that this would betray the will of voters, who in 2008 voted him into power.

Defiant in the face of his declining popularity, Berlusconi insists that if his government falls, the only alternative is an early election. He says he would win it again, as part of a coalition with his current government partner, the Northern League.

“Don’t read the newspapers,’’ Berlusconi told supporters in Milan this weekend. “Sixty percent of [voters] are with me.’’

A poll conducted last week for state-run RAI television showed that if an election were held now, Berlusconi and the Northern League would garner only about 40 percent of the vote.

While Berlusconi can never be written off, the premier’s image has been damaged by a spate of scandals in the last two years.

In the most recent one, he came under scrutiny over his ties to a Moroccan teenager nicknamed Ruby Rubacuori (or “Ruby the Heart-Stealer’’) and his alleged encounters with a prostitute. His rivals have attacked his unrepentantly lavish lifestyle, saying a public figure should set an example and insisting he was failing to attend to the country’s economic troubles.

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