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Berlusconi addresses parliament amid infighting

ROME, Oct 13 – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addresses parliament later on Thursday on the eve of a key confidence vote, amid divisions inside his ruling coalition and economic uncertainty.

The scandal-tainted 75-year-old prime minister suffered the indignity of a parliamentary defeat on Tuesday. His centre-right majority was defeated by one vote in a ballot on an important budget document.

That prompted opposition calls for his resignation and centre-left lawmakers have said they will not attend Berlusconi’s speech scheduled for 0900 GMT on Thursday.

That means parliament will be almost half-empty — a rare symbolic move intended to highlight the depth of his isolation.

“Like Nero did while Rome burnt, Berlusconi will be playing and singing on his own,” said Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption judge turned fierce Berlusconi critic. He heads up the small Italy of Values opposition party.

A few anti-capitalist protesters are meanwhile camped out in front of the Bank of Italy following Wednesday’s 2,000-strong rally, inspired by the “Indignant” movement in Spain and “Occupy Wall Street” in the United States.

Their protests are expected to build up to a bigger rally on Saturday.

Berlusconi’s popularity is at an all-time low.

He is a defendant in three trials for bribery, tax fraud, abuse of power and paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl — as well as the subject of an array of other sex scandals.

Political uncertainty in Italy and its effect on long-term economic policymaking was cited as a key factor for the recent downgrades of its sovereign debt by ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s.

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Many commentators saw Tuesday’s vote defeat as a landmark in the decline of the billionaire tycoon’s political career — which began in the early 1990s when he entered politics with a party called Forza Italia (Go Italy).

The failure to pass the document on the 2010 state balance sheet has created an unprecedented problem for the government.

It cannot approve the country’s upcoming budget until the accounts for the previous year have been ratified.

The vote is now set to be held on Friday along with the confidence vote.

Former Berlusconi allies such as ex-economic development minister Claudio Scajola have voiced their discontent and rumours have swirled for months over where exactly Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti’s allegiances lie.

Some commentators have said the chances of a general election before the end of the government’s mandate in 2013 — are now higher than ever.

Others however argue that it is too early to dismiss the canny Berlusconi.

“What is the probability that Berlusconi will fall tomorrow with a clear-cut vote? Very low. In practice, zero,” said Stefano Folli, a columnist for business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

“And yet few people think that winning the confidence vote will guarantee him smooth sailing,” he added.

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“The prime minister’s real problems are the ones that existed before his visit to parliament and will continue to exist after it.”

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