Gianfranco Fini, a former neo-fascist and key supporter of Silvio Berlusconi for the past 16 years, has made a decisive move against his long-time ally by withdrawing his party’s support from the Italian prime minister’s centre-right coalition government.

The formal resignation on Monday of Mr Fini’s party’s members – Andrea Ronchi as minister for European affairs, together with a deputy industry minister and two undersecretaries – sets the stage for a parliamentary showdown next month, but only after the passage of the 2011 budget, which politicians agree is needed to keep jittery debt markets at bay.

Mr Berlusconi can no longer rely on a majority in the lower house of parliament. Should he lose a vote of no-confidence in December then Italy will probably be on course for general elections in early 2011, two years ahead of schedule. They could be averted if Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, can find support for a caretaker administration.

With the opposition and commentators declaring the beginning of the end of the “Berlusconi era”, Mr Fini, 58-year-old speaker of parliament, is positioning his new Future and Liberty party as a moderate force to challenge Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty on the centre-right.

It was Mr Berlusconi who conferred political respectability on Mr Fini in 1994 by taking his then neo-fascist party from the fringes and into government after the first of their three election victories together.

Now, after a long political journey away from his fascist roots – culminating in his renunciation of Benito Mussolini on a 2003 visit to Israel – Mr Fini has been emboldened by the latest scandal surrounding Mr Berlusconi’s personal life to challenge the prime minister’s own fitness to rule.

“Italy’s leaders,” Mr Fini said in a speech on Monday, “have lost . . . their sense of dignity, responsibility and duty, which should be intrinsic to those called to fill public positions.”

Mr Fini launched his new party in Perugia on November 7, confirming his rift with the party he co-founded with the billionaire Mr Berlusconi last year on the mistaken assumption he would be anointed heir apparent to the 74-year-old.

Mr Fini declared that his party’s Manifesto for Italy “puts the interests of the people above personal interest”, stressing nationhood, legality, ethics, meritocracy and compassion – themes that have attracted many younger, educated activists.

According to opinion polls, Mr Fini’s party would attract only 5 to 8 per cent of voters. Future and Liberty is thus contemplating an alliance with three centrist parties, including the UDC, whose pro-church orientation puts it at odds with Mr Fini’s secular approach to such issues as same-sex marriage.

Polls suggest such a centrist alliance could hold the balance of power between Mr Berlusconi’s coalition with the rightwing Northern League and the centre-left Democratic party.

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