Berlusconi on brink after party ultimatum
Silvio Berlusconi's wavering leadership came under fresh attack last night when his most powerful coalition partner issued a series of ultimatums and threats that could bring down the Italian government.
Umberto Bossi, the outspoken head of the Northern League -- which once had aspirations for northern Italy to secede from the rest of the country as 'Padania' -- said Mr Berlusconi would have to accede to his demands if he wanted to remain in power until the end of his term in 2013.
Mr Bossi's flexing of his political muscles comes as the billionaire Italian prime minister's standing is at an all-time low, after his centre-right party suffered humiliating defeats in mayoral elections last month and again last week in national referendums, when 95pc of votes were cast against the government.
The Northern League was instrumental in the collapse of Mr Berlusconi's first, short-lived administration, in 1994.
Mr Bossi made his demands during the league's annual rally in the northern town of Pontida, in the foothills of the Alps, where the party gathers every year to celebrate its founding 20 years ago.
He said the Berlusconi government could endure until 2013 but only if it was prepared to respond to his demands, including an end to Italy's involvement in the Libyan campaign, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Lebanon and the moving of four government ministries from Rome to northern cities such as Milan.
The league is crucial to Mr Berlusconi's political survival but has become emboldened by his increasingly fragile hold on power, as he battles a series of sex scandals, corruption accusations and charges of failing to revive Italy's stagnant economy.
A poll last week found that his personal approval rating among Italians is at an all-time low of 29pc, down from more than 50pc when he was elected in 2008.
The poll suggested that his People of Freedom Party and its coalition partners would lose if an election was called now, attracting only 39pc of the vote.
Amid accusations that Mr Berlusconi (74) spends more time trying to extricate himself from scandals than running the country, an Italian news magazine published photos of him strolling with two unidentified women at his luxury estate on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda just over a week ago -- the day that his party took a severe drubbing in the referendums.
Among his demands, Mr Bossi called for sweeping tax cuts, claiming that they could be paid for with savings of "a handsome billion euro" if Italy ended its support for the Nato campaign against the Gaddafi regime and withdrew its soldiers from Afghanistan and Lebanon. (© Daily Telegraph, London)