, ROME, Sep 30 – Italy\’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Thursday his victory in a parliamentary vote of confidence had strengthened his centre-right coalition, but doubts remain over the intentions of a key former ally.
"The majority is stronger. The chamber (of deputies, lower house) has approved the vote of confidence with a broader and more pronounced majority than in 2008. That\’s what counts, not confused electoral calculations," Berlusconi said in a speech to the Senate the morning after the vote.
Berlusconi, whose coalition was rocked in July when longtime ally Gianfranco Fini walked out on the government, comfortably won the vote of confidence by 342 votes to 275, when Fini\’s 34 dissidents lent their support.
However, it was clear Thursday that Berlusconi, who just weeks ago held a comfortable majority in parliament, faced a changed political landscape.
Italian commentators pointed out that the vote emphasised the extent to which Berlusconi\’s People of Freedom coalition will now have to rely on Fini to reach a majority, 309 votes, in this and any future vote over the remaining three years of his mandate.
Fini MP Carmelo Briguglio drove home the point early Thursday saying that without the support of the lower house speaker\’s new Future and Freedom group, "the government wouldn\’t exist any more".
Berlusconi\’s straight-talking stalwart ally, Umberto Bossi, head of the right wing Northern League, grudgingly concurred.
"The numbers are really tight. The road is narrow. In life, it\’s better to take the high road and the high road was elections. Berlusconi didn\’t want to, and so here we are," he said.
Interior Minister Roberto Moroni, another prominent Northern League minister, was even more blunt, predicting, "In my opinion, we\’ll be going to the polls in March".
The anti-immigrant Northern League has emerged weaker in the fallout of the Berlusconi-Fini clash, because it is no longer the sole guarantor of government survival in crunch votes, according to Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at Rome\’s John Cabot university.
"The situation is extremely precarious," another commentator, Marco Tarchi, of the University of Florence, said.
"Berlusconi can no longer put off the moment of truth, the definitive break with Fini, as the longer he waits the more time he gives to his adversaries to organize themselves for elections," said Tarchi.
Berlusconi\’s own family newspaper Il Giornale also spoke Thursday of the need for early elections after the winter. "The \’yes\’ for Berlusconi\’s speech from the Fini-ites is a glitch, a stratagem to win time before stabbing the majority in the back," it said.
Berlusconi insisted his government was now in a position to run its full term to 2013, based on a five-point programme he outlined to parliament hours before Wednesday night\’s vote.
But his big problem is that his reliance on Fini and his supporters is absolute, and that the rupture in July of their 16-year alliance seems beyond healing.
According to leading daily Corriere della Sera, Wednesday\’s vote, which followed months of bitter feuding, was Fini\’s way of showing he had his old master over a barrel.
"It\’s a defeat for the hard line pursued in recent months by Palazzo Chigi (Berlusconi\’s office) and revenge, at least in parliament, for Gianfranco Fini\’s \’rebels\’," the paper commented.