Rome: Italy`s embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looked set to emerge strengthened from a confidence vote on Wednesday after opponents rallied behind his call for national unity.
Deprived of a parliamentary majority following months of bitter infighting, Berlusconi risked having to step down if he lost the vote scheduled for later Wednesday.
However, members of a breakaway group from his centre-right coalition said they would back their former leader after he launched an emotional appeal for an end to national dissension.
"We will vote with the confidence motion," said lawmaker Benedetto Della Vedova, a member of a dissident group led by lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini, which split from Berlusconi`s People of Freedoms party in July.
Earlier Berlusconi, speaking on his 74th birthday, said national cohesion had unravelled and needed to be stitched back together again while politics based on personal attacks had to end.
The leader, whose term runs until 2013, also unveiled a new five-point government plan including widespread tax cuts and other inducements aimed at attracting support.
"We have to start again without making cheap compromises. Each one must fulfil his role with responsibility and respect his opponent without being divisive," said Berlusconi, referring to a spat with former ally Fini which caused a split in his centre-right coalition and forced the confidence issue.
"I see too much hate, hate which can strengthen the hand of subversion," said the media billionaire who needed hospital treatment last year after he was attacked in the street by a mentally deranged assailant.
The Italian leader lost his once-comfortable parliamentary majority in July when Fini, the lower house speaker and co-founder of his People of Freedoms Party (PDL), quit to set up a parliamentary breakaway with the support of 34 dissident MPs and 10 senators.
During the speech Berlusconi launched his programme for the remainder of his term that included popular measures such as reform of the justice system and tax cuts as well as a strengthening of Italy`s federal system designed to bridge a growing north-south divide.
He promised tax cuts to businesses as well as families but insisted on the need to avoid deepening the country`s debt burden.
He also said illegal immigration, on which he and Fini have disagreed, had dropped by 88 percent under his watch and he took credit for successes in the fight against the Mafia.
In the speech lasting just under an hour, regularly interrupted by applause from his supporters, Berlusconi admitted he was "bitter" over the divisions within his coalition while acknowledging that the debate over his policies was legitimate and necessary.
"There is no democracy and good government without a strong and free parliament," said the prime minister, responding to charges he had promised political favours to some MPs to help shore up his majority.
The confidence vote is due late Wednesday evening following lengthy debate in the lower house following Berlusconi`s speech.
According to recent polls, voter confidence in Berlusconi and his government is at an all-time low since his election in 2008. But with the backing of Fini`s allies assured, he is almost certain to prevail.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, a staunch supporter of Berlusconi, told Italy`s RAI television ahead of the vote he expected the ailing centre-right coalition to emerge stronger from the vote.