Tue, Nov 09, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Key Berlusconi ally presents Italian PM with an ultimatum

The Guardian, ROME

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s longest-standing ally on Sunday presented him with an ultimatum that could herald the beginning of the end of the TV magnate’s government.

Addressing supporters after a tumultuous week that saw the prime minister on the receiving end of sex and drug allegations, Chamber of Deputies President Gianfranco Fini warned that he would withdraw his followers from the government unless Berlusconi resigned. Initial signs were that Berlusconi would refuse to do so.

The man who for 15 years stood at Berlusconi’s side delivered his ultimatum in the course of a wide-ranging speech in which he criticized, and even ridiculed, the administration’s performance.

Using language that appeared to leave an unbridgeable chasm between the two men, Fini, a former neo-fascist, accused Berlusconi of heading “the government of pretending everything is going well.”

He made no direct reference to the latest controversies over the prime minister’s private life, but in an unmistakable allusion, Fini spoke of “moral decay” caused by a “loss of decorum and rigor in the behavior of those who, as public figures, are required to set an example.”

After Fini was denounced by the leadership of Berlusconi’s Freedom People (PdL) party in July, his followers renounced the PdL whip and set up groups of their own in both chambers of parliament, robbing the prime minister of his majority in the lower house. However, the Future and Freedom for Italy (FLI) movement, which met at the weekend near Perugia, is not expected to become a party until next year.

A key reason why Fini is apparently bent on prolonging the death throes of Berlusconi’s wounded and all but inert administration is that the FLI is still not in a position to fight an election.

The government has made little significant progress for more than a year, paralyzed by its leader’s efforts to provide himself with immunity from the courts along with an unending succession of scandals over his sex life and the alleged financial misconduct of ministers and officials.

Last week, a former prostitute came forward to say that she had twice been paid for sex by Berlusconi, that she had taken part with him in a sex session involving a teenager and that cannabis was made available for guests at his holiday villa. He dismissed the claims as “made-up stories.”

On Friday, Berlusconi tried to restore purpose to his administration when his Cabinet approved a package of new security measures. Without referring to it directly, Fini told FLI delegates: “Nowhere in Europe is there a political movement as backward on civil liberties as the PdL.”

Fini said that he in contrast, wanted to offer Italy a new, more tolerant and moderate brand of conservatism that would avoid “distinguishing between blacks and whites, between Christians, Muslims and Jews, between heterosexuals and homosexuals, [or] between Italians and foreigners.”

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