Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi hit out on Saturday at former loyalists in his center-right party who have set up a “renewal” faction led by the media tycoon’s former protege Angelino Alfano.
The billionaire blamed the split, without ever naming Alfano, on “differences not of policy or values, but between personalities who have created a poisonous atmosphere.”
Alfano, who announced the “divorce” after late-night talks on Friday, stayed away along with about 50 other defectors from a meeting on Saturday of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party.
During a rambling speech lasting an hour and a half, the scandal-tainted Berlusconi, 77, drew frequent applause.
Admitting to having had a sleepless night, once appearing on the verge of fainting before recovering himself, the media and construction baron expressed his “sadness” at the break-up. In a conciliatory gesture, Berlusconi added that Alfano’s grouping would be a “necessary member” of the 200-strong center-right voting bloc.
The PDL meeting was meant to be a happy event at which the party would be renamed Forza Italia (“Go Italy”), the sporty name Berlusconi used when he first launched the party in 1994.
Alfano, whose faction is to be called the New Center Right, said his decision had been “very bitter, painful, but fair.”
The 43-year-old lawyer told a news conference: “It was unthinkable for us to throw the country into a situation that would have further aggravated things for Italians.”
He said on Friday he would not be part of the reborn Forza Italia because “these past few weeks have shown to what extent extreme forces have prevailed within our movement,” referring to a belief by his supporters that Berlusconi was pandering to hardliners.
Berlusconi’s party has been in turmoil since September, when he tried to bring down Italy’s uneasy left-right coalition government by withdrawing his ministers, but was forced into a humiliating climbdown when they refused to heed his orders.
The five ministers — all Alfano supporters — will stay on as members of the rump PDL, meaning that Forza Italia will not be represented in the government.
The daily La Stampa described the break-up as the “first post-Berlusconi act” with an immediate consequence: “The government is saved, with a new, smaller, but also more united [parliamentary] majority.”
Berlusconi will face another possible humiliation on Nov. 27, when the Italian Senate votes whether to eject him from parliament’s upper chamber under a law banning convicted criminals from the body.
Alfano, stressing his continuing “deep affection” for Berlusconi, said on Saturday that his faction would vote against his expulsion.
The Italian Supreme Court on Aug. 1 rejected Berlusconi’s final appeal in a tax fraud case, handing him his first-ever definitive conviction in a long history of legal woes. Berlusconi has asked to serve his 12-month sentence by carrying out community service.