Rome: Premier Silvio Berlusconi faced a showdown in parliament after the breakup with a key ally, as lawmakers began voting Wednesday on an opposition censure motion against a government official implicated in a corruption scandal.
Berlusconi`s government is expected to defeat the motion in the lower house of parliament. But the voting was widely anticipated to test just how strong the Italian leader is after the breakup with Gianfranco Fini and the erosion of his parliamentary majority.
Lawmakers loyal to Fini have formed their own group, potentially depriving Berlusconi`s coalition of a majority in the lower house.
In this case, the 33 rebel lawmakers said they will abstain rather than vote against the government.
The abstentions would allow the government to sink the motion, because such motions need a majority of `yes` votes to pass. But mass abstentions will also send a clear signal that Berlusconi`s grip on the 630-seat house is loosening and show how much clout Fini now yields.
The spectacular split with Fini played out with venomous accusations on both sides. Fini, currently serving as speaker of the lower house, had been an ally since Berlusconi`s entry into politics 16 years ago and is the co-founder of the People of Freedom party.
The two had bickered for months on a number of issues, most notably morality in politics in the wake of scandals hitting coalition members. Fini has taken a harsher stance than Berlusconi, demanding that public officials suspected of corruption resign.
Wednesday`s censure motion targets Justice Ministry Undersecretary Giacomo Caliendo, who has been entangled in a probe looking into a secret association allegedly seeking to influence politics and justice. Caliendo has denied wrongdoing, and has refused to resign.
Last week, Berlusconi accused Fini of mounting an opposition from within and working against the government, effectively expelling him from the party. Fini said Berlusconi behaved more like a manager than a premier and claimed the right to dissent from him.
For all his acrimonious words, Fini says his lawmakers will support the government when it carries out the joint electoral platform under which the coalition was voted into power in 2008. But he says that they will oppose it when they consider its policies unjust or against the common good.
Berlusconi has issued reassurances that his government is stable. But in recent days he has also warned that he will push for early elections at the first sign of trouble.
In case of a government collapse, the president of the republic might seek to put a caretaker government in place or call early elections.
Italian analysts say that, if the election is held very soon, Berlusconi might benefit because this would leave little time for Fini to organize his challenge. The main leftist opposition party is also seen as a weak contender.
The government`s term ends in 2013.