Italy's Berlusconi fights for political survival

October 13, 2011 - 5:20 AM
Italy Berlusconi

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, left, delivers his speech flanked by Reform Minister Umberto Bossi, center, and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, in the Lower Chamber, in Rome, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. Berlusconi appealed to lawmakers to support his government in a confidence vote, saying that his government is the only

MILAN (AP) — Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi appealed for his political survival Thursday, telling parliament that his government is the only credible alternative to help guide the country through the growing sovereign debt crisis.

Berlusconi's 3 1/2-year-old government faces a confidence vote Friday that will test if the premier retains a majority in Parliament. If the vote fails, Berlusconi must step down.

The crisis was provoked when lawmakers this week blocked routine legislation, which prompted opposition lawmakers to demand his immediate resignation and the country's ceremonial president to urge the Italian leader to prove his government's mettle.

Berlusconi made clear in his 15-minute address that he has no intention of stepping down — and that if he loses the only alternative is new elections, not a technical government as some have proposed.

"The governments asks for a confirmation of confidence because it is deeply aware of the risks facing the country and because the deadlines imposed by the markets are not compatible with those of certain political rituals," Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi has steadfastly resisted calls for new elections as his leadership has been weakened by personal scandals, trials and Italy's increasingly precarious financial position. Three ratings agencies have downgraded Italy's public debt, one of the highest in the eurozone nearing 120 percent of gross domestic product, citing political gridlock as a key reason.

Berlusconi's coalition partner, the Northern League, has indicated only grudging support for the leader, saying publicly that it is not sure Berlusconi will complete his mandate in 2013.

The confidence vote comes at a crucial moment for Italy, which is under pressure to come up with growth-promoting measures to avert being dragged into the widening sovereign debt crisis.

Addressing lawmakers, Berlusconi argued that only a democratically elected government enjoyed the support to make the painful but necessary decisions to stabilize Italy's finances. The opposition mostly boycotted the premier's appearance, but he was flanked by Northern League leader Umberto Bossi and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and was frequently interrupted by applause in a show of unity.

Should he lose, Berlusconi said voters must decide a new government, adding that a technical government would not have "the strength of a legitimate government like this in the face of the difficult decisions posed by this crisis."

On Wednesday, Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, who takes over the helm of the European Central Bank on Nov. 1, urged the government to act more quickly to implement reforms that can spur growth — beyond the austerity package that put Italy on the path to balance its budget by 2013.

Otherwise, Draghi warned that the rising cost of borrowing to service national debt seen over the last three months will eat up "no small part" of the austerity package approved by Parliament last month.

"The goal of relaunching growth is finally largely shared, but the adoption of the measures necessary so far have banged up against apparently insurmountable difficulties," Draghi said.