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Italy’s Berlusconi faces confidence vote

ROME, Oct 14 – Italy’s centre-right government faces a crucial confidence vote in parliament on Friday after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi warned his numerous critics that trying to bring him down could trigger financial turmoil.

Barring any major upsets, Berlusconi’s coalition is expected to pass the vote but the margin is likely to be narrow and unlikely to put an end to the infighting that has plagued the government for weeks during tough economic times.

“There is no alternative to this government,” the scandal-tainted 75-year-old prime minister told parliament on Thursday, saying that the opposition was “united only by its anti-Berlusconism.”

“Early elections would not solve the problems we have,” he said, adding: “A political crisis now would mean victory for the party of decline, catastrophe and speculation.”

Berlusconi has been forced to turn to parliament to confirm its support after the ruling coalition suffered an embarrassing setback on Tuesday when it was unexpectedly defeated in a low-profile but key technical vote.

“I am here and with me I have a politically cohesive majority, apart from some incidents in parliament,” he said on Thursday. The defeat in parliament has revived talk about possible plots against an embattled Berlusconi from within the government’s own ranks.

Debate on the confidence vote is expected to start at around 1030 GMT.

Daniela Santanche, a close ally and deputy from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, said the confidence vote would allow a shaken government to “patch things up” for now.

The government was defeated by just one vote when it tried to pass the 2010 state balance sheet, creating an unprecedented problem. Italy now cannot approve the country’s upcoming budget until previous accounts have been ratified — and the process could take several days.

Berlusconi’s popularity is at an all-time low, with the latest poll from last month giving him a 24-percent approval rating.

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

His joke last week that his party should change its name to “Go Pussy!” fell flat and incensed many who are concerned he is damaging Italy’s image abroad.

Former Berlusconi allies such as ex-economic development minister Claudio Scajola have begun voicing their discontent — and there have been rumours for months as to where Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti’s allegiances lie.

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.

Some commentators say Tuesday’s vote defeat is one more step in the decline of Berlusconi’s political career, which began in the early 1990s, and say the government is unlikely to see out its mandate which ends in 2013.

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

On the streets meanwhile, a protest movement similar to the “Indignants” in Spain and “Occupy Wall Street” in the United States has been taking shape.

Organisers have said they expect tens of thousands to turn out for a rally on Saturday.

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