Government facing collapse over Berlusconi party feud
Silvio Berlusconi's government was in danger of collapse last night after open warfare broke out between the Italian prime minister and his most senior party colleague.
The dispute with Gianfranco Fini, the co-founder of the governing People of Freedom party, follows a string of corruption and sex scandals.
The resulting crisis has prompted speculation that Italy's government will not survive its full term.
Mr Berlusconi's approval ratings have been falling since he announced a €25bn austerity package and made a controversial attempt to curtail police use of wiretapping.
But it is the row with Mr Fini, the parliamentary speaker, that could lead to the collapse of the government because Mr Fini commands the support of up to 50 MPs.
His defection or expulsion could force fresh elections.
Mr Fini has enraged the prime minister in recent months by calling for greater "morality" in government, criticising the wiretapping restrictions and complaining of Mr Berlusconi's dictatorial style of government.
After months of increasingly acrimonious and very public arguments, the prime minister rebuffed the offering of a truce by Mr Fini, a former fascist who leads an influential bloc within the government and is speaker of the lower house of parliament.
In a newspaper interview, Mr Fini said he was ready to bury the hatchet and work together for the good of the country.
"Berlusconi and I don't have a duty to be friends or even to appear to be friends but we should honour a political and electoral commitment with the Italian people," he said.
But before the newspaper even hit the streets, Mr Berlusconi had rejected the olive branch, telling senior aides on Wednesday night that it was "too late" for a rapprochement.
The bitter feud between the two men has reinforced the impression of a government that has lost purpose and direction since being elected in May 2008. Mr Berlusconi's personal approval ratings have dropped from more than 50pc a year ago to 39pc.
According to one poll, the conservative coalition's overall approval rating has fallen to 31pc -- just three points above the centre-Left opposition.
While Mr Berlusconi was embroiled in scandals over his private life last summer, this summer it is some of his closest political associates who have been tainted by sleaze.
In the past two months, two ministers and a junior minister have been forced to resign over corruption scandals.
"The opposition is weak, and for now Fini doesn't have the numbers to defeat him," said Prof James Walston, a political analyst at the American University of Rome
Many Italians feel that Mr Berlusconi is so preoccupied trying to shore up his position that he lacks the time and concentration to govern. (© Daily Telegraph, London)