ROME – When Silvio Berlusconi set out to end Italy’s government last month, he didn’t consult the national secretary of his People of Freedom Party. Nor was the party’s secretary Angelino Alfano asked whether he wanted to resign as deputy prime minister of the coalition government; he was told to.
This government “is up to no good. It only wants to raise taxes”, a Berlusconi aide told Alfano by phone on the Saturday afternoon of September 28, according to a person close to the deputy premier. The aide said Alfano and the four other ministers of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party had to step down immediately.
Alfano, who declined to comment for this article, did resign, jolting financial markets and reviving memories of the moment in 2011 when Italy almost succumbed to the euro zone debt crisis. But the phone call also triggered a mutiny among Berlusconi’s most senior lieutenants that thwarted his attempt to topple the government.
Coupled with a likely ouster from parliament after a criminal conviction, the rebellion has left the 77-year-old Berlusconi facing the most serious challenge to his authority in 20 years and is pushing Italy’s most dominant post-war leader into the sunset of his career, friends and colleagues say.
“Berlusconi thought his people would stand up for him. But they didn’t,” Umberto Bossi, leader of the separatist Northern League party said in an interview. Bossi said it was too early to write Berlusconi off. But he added that his long-time friend and former political ally was “not what he was before”.
The revolt – the details of which Reuters has pieced together after interviews with two dozen politicians and aides who were directly involved – is now giving rise to what many say is a long overdue power struggle for the future of Italy’s conservative forces. For Alfano – a 42-year-old Sicilian lawyer who was long been Berlusconi’s anointed successor, but who few considered strong enough to lead the party – the coup is a chance to set his own stamp on a new conservative political group.
Whether Alfano will succeed is by no means certain. He has neither Berlusconi’s millions nor his proven electoral appeal, shown most recently in February’s elections, when the media mogul converted what looked at one point like a likely wipe-out into a share of government.
Yet Berlusconi himself is worried about his future, people close to him say. For his tax fraud conviction, he faces a year of house arrest or community service and once out of parliament, he loses legal immunity and could be arrested at any time. Berlusconi declined to comment for this article. (Reuters)