Last updated: October 12, 2011 5:25 pm

Italian PM stakes survival on confidence vote

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Silvio Berlusconi, the great survivor of Italian politics, appears on course to win more time for his centre-right government, but even his supporters are asking how long a weakened prime minister can keep going with a precarious majority in parliament and his coalition split by internal feuding.

Following his government’s surprise defeat by one vote on a routine but still important bill in the lower house on Tuesday, when a score of his deputies failed to show up, Mr Berlusconi is staking his government’s survival on a vote of confidence in parliament that could take place on Friday.

Party leaders who staved off an internal revolt and organised Mr Berlusconi’s narrow victory in a similar confidence vote last December say they are sure of a repeat win, perhaps by as many as 10 votes. The question is whether the 75-year-old, weighed down by sex scandals and court cases, will demonstrate the capacity to end the paralysis blocking decisions, from legislation on economic reforms to the nomination of a central bank governor and posts in the state broadcaster.

Mario Draghi, head of the Bank of Italy who is to lead the European Central Bank from next month, warned in a speech on Wednesday that “action must be taken quickly” to avoid what he called an “ungovernable” debt spiral.

Opposition leaders were disappointed that Giorgio Napolitano, president, did not ask for Mr Berlusconi’s resignation after Tuesday’s defeat. Still, the 86-year-old head of state resorted to unusually blunt language in expressing his concern over the “acute tensions” within the government while calling for a “credible response” to Italy’s urgent economic problems.

Mr Berlusconi is to defend his government’s record before the lower house on Thursday ahead of the confidence vote the following day. He could find himself addressing a half-empty chamber after opposition leaders agreed last night that their parties would boycott his speech in what they said was a symbolic protest to demonstrate his political “death”. They said they would return on Friday for the expected confidence vote. 

In the event of a narrow victory, allies do not rule out the possibility Mr Berlusconi could decide to hold early elections rather than struggle on to the end of his mandate in early 2013.

“When the prime minister and his finance minister are not on the same page, then there is little point in the government soldiering on,” said Nicholas Spiro, a London-based analyst, referring to feuding between Mr Berlusconi and Giulio Tremonti.

“Political dysfunctionality in Italy is now a major source of stress in the eurozone. What hope is there for this government to undertake the kind of fiscal and structural reforms demanded of it when its two most important ministers are barely on speaking terms? This is not just a problem for Italy, this is undermining confidence in the eurozone,” Mr Spiro added.

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