Rome: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday faced a parliamentary crisis after falling out in spectacular style with his one-time ally, lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini.
After months of acrimony, Berlusconi late on Thursday demanded that Fini leave his post, which the speaker categorically refused as around 30 lawmakers have indicated they are to join his breakaway movement.
A major defection of People of Freedom (PDL) lawmakers would end the absolute majority that the party and its coalition partner -- the anti-immigration Northern League -- enjoy in parliament.
Berlusconi should however remain in power with the support of 24 lawmakers from other minor parties.
Hours earlier, Berlusconi, rejecting an 11th-hour peace offering from Fini, had said at a meeting of the PDL -- which the erstwhile allies founded in 2009 -- that the price of "obvious divisions" had become too high.
But the editor of the centre-right newspaper Il Foglio -- owned by Berlusconi`s brother -- said the premier would pay a "hefty price" for the rupture.
"The image of a leader kicking out someone who says he disagrees with him but wants to continue to loyally work together in the same party, is an ugly one," Giuliano Ferrara wrote.
While press commentators ruled out the prospect of early elections -- three years ahead of schedule -- they were busy tallying up the opposing camps.
If Fini`s supporters "have only around 15 they will be no more than a thorn in the side of the coalition... But if they have 30 or 35 the premier`s optimism will have to face up to a bitter reality," wrote Stefano Folli of the business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
Losing the majority in parliament will have "a series of consequences that the prime minister would be wise not to underestimate," Folli warned.
For Berlusconi to be deprived of an absolute majority in the lower house, a total of 47 lawmakers would have to defect.
The chamber currently has 271 PDL lawmakers, 59 from the Northern League and another 24 considered favourable to the centre right, while the opposition counts 269 MPs.
Animosity has been building between the flamboyant Berlusconi, 73, and 58-year-old Fini for months, erupting in a public spat in April when the speaker said dissent should be allowed within the PDL.
Fini, formerly head of the right-wing post-fascist National Alliance, has been a key ally of Berlusconi since the billionaire media tycoon entered politics in 1994.
The speaker has taken frequent stands against corruption in politics at a time when several high-ranking members of Berlusconi`s government have been embroiled in scandal with three resignations, including those of two ministers, in recent months.
Fini said recently that all politicians being pursued in the courts should resign.
Enjoying a ready pulpit as speaker of parliament as well as the power to shape the legislative agenda, Fini helped water down a controversial bill limiting telephone taps that Berlusconi strongly supported.
Berlusconi, who is flagging in opinion polls and himself has recurrent legal troubles connected to his sprawling media empire, said Fini`s positions were "absolutely incompatible" with those of the PDL.
But Fini refused to resign, saying that the speaker`s job was "not at the beck and call of the Prime Minister."
Fini made a last-minute bid for reconciliation with the premier, saying in an interview Thursday they should "examine everything from every angle without resentment."
Several of Fini`s supporters however said they no longer considered themselves members of the PDL and would set up their own group in parliament, while Berlusconi expressed confidence that the rupture would not bring down his government.