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Berlusconi scrambles to reassure allies after vote setback

ROME, Oct 12 – Italy’s premier Silvio Berlusconi, reeling from an unexpected coalition defeat, is expected to defy calls for his resignation with a speech to parliament on Thursday and a confidence vote on Friday.

The prime minister suffered a blow late on Tuesday when poor turnout during a vote on a technical document meant that it was rejected by one vote.

That handed victory to the opposition, who quickly called for Berlusconi to resign.

But on Wednesday, Fabrizio Cicchitto, of the premier’s People of Freedom (PDL) party brushed off talk of a government crisis.

“The opposition is wrong if it considers yesterday’s (Tuesday’s) vote as one of no confidence against the government,” he told journalists.

Berlusconi would address deputies at 0900 GMT on Thursday and call for a confidence vote he said. That vote was expected to take place on Friday.

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

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

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So what should have been a formality quickly became a drama which hit the front pages and left commentators musing over whether Berlusconi, whose popularity is at an all-time low, could survive the fall-out.

But while the opposition called for his resignation, the premier and his entourage played down the vote loss as a “hitch.”

Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano said he was worried about “tensions within the government and the coalition,” made up of Berlusconi’s PDL and the centre-right anti-immigrant Northern League party, led by Umberto Bossi.

Bossi was absent from the vote.

So too was Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, who has been at loggerheads with Berlusconi over the handling of the public accounts.

They also disagree over who should succeed Mario Draghi as president of the Bank of Italy, after he steps down to become head of the European Central Bank.

Friday’s confidence vote will be the 51st for the coalition government since Berlusconi returned to power in 2008.

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