Fri, Jul 16, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Italy minister quits as vote looms

REUTERS , ROME

An Italian junior minister resigned on Wednesday in the latest blow to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is pushing an unpopular 25 billion euro (US$32 billion) austerity package through parliament.

Economy Ministry undersecretary Nicola Cosentino had been under mounting pressure to quit after being put under investigation for suspected involvement in a conspiracy to influence court rulings and smear opponents in his own party.

Cosentino denied in a statement any wrongdoing but said he had decided to step down in agreement with Berlusconi, who faced a confidence vote yesterday on the austerity budget.

He said he was the victim of persecution not only by the opposition but also by allies of Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament and co-founder with Berlusconi of the ruling People of Freedom party.

He said Fini’s increasingly critical stance on a widening corruption scandal that has tainted the government was simply “a not-so veiled attempt to gain power within the party.”

Cosentino’s departure was the third resignation from Berlusconi’s government in two months.

Industry Minister Claudio Scajola quit in May after being linked to an improper real estate deal and Federalism Minister Aldo Brancher stepped down last week in the middle of an embezzlement trial.

Cosentino had already offered to resign in February after prosecutors sought his arrest for alleged links to the Naples mafia but the prime minister rejected the offer.

He was later placed under investigation over reports that a cabal of officials within the People of Freedom party conspired to manipulate political appointments and lean on judges.

Berlusconi this week dismissed the widespread reports on the case but allies of Fini, who has been engaged in an acrimonious conflict with the prime minister over recent months, had backed calls for Cosentino to quit.

The premier is enduring one of the rockiest moments in his two-year tenure, with falling approval ratings adding to pressure.

“The ruling coalition is on the ropes,” Enrico Letta of the opposition Democratic Party said after Cosentino resigned.

Still, Berlusconi is expected to win the vote on the budget in the Senate given his large majority.

The package, including cuts in public sector pay and drastic reductions in regional funds, is opposed by groups ranging from unions to cash-strapped local governments, which say they will not be able to provide proper health and education services.

“Only workers pay,” Guglielmo Epifani, leader of the main CGIL union, said on Wednesday.

But the government says the measures are essential to bring Italy’s budget deficit down from 5.3 percent of GDP to 2.7 percent by 2012, in line with EU requirements, and to reassure markets fearing a widening debt crisis in southern Europe.

“Austerity is a necessity,” the main architect of the budget, Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, said.

Once approved by the Senate, the budget will go before the lower house of parliament, where the government is also planning to call a confidence vote by the end of the month.

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