ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Enrico Letta warned he will quit unless his coalition receives fresh pledges of unwavering support, and will seek a confidence vote in Parliament on his government, which risks collapses from escalating tension over ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction, a minister said after a tense Cabinet meeting Friday night.
Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom Party partners with Letta's center-left Democratic Party in an unusual alliance of rival forces. Letta summoned the Cabinet to determine if the media mogul's lawmakers still back the five-month-old government, which is struggling to pull Italy out of a stubborn recession. Nearly all of Berlusconi's senators have vowed to quit if a Senate committee votes next week to strip him of his seat because of the conviction, which was upheld Aug. 1 by Italy's top court.
"I am unwilling to go beyond this step of clarification" of support, Letta told the Cabinet, according to a statement from the premier's office. "Effective government action is clearly incompatible with mass resignations of a Parliamentary group which should be supporting this very government."
"Either (the government) is re-launched, and the country and the interests of the citizens come first, or we pull the plug" on the government, Letta was quoted as saying. Regional Affairs Minister Graziano Delrio told reporters after leaving the 2 ½ hour Cabinet meeting that Letta will put his government to a confidence vote in Parliament after laying out his policies in a speech. If Letta loses the vote, he would have to resign. If a new government cannot be formed, perhaps with other partners, early elections could be called. No date was set for the confidence vote.
Italians voted in February in parliamentary elections, whose inconclusive results led to weeks of political haggling, before Letta's forces and Berlusconi's forces forged the tense coalition, which has failed to jump-start the economy amid near-constant bickering.
Before the meeting, Letta huddled with Italy's president, who has made plain he doesn't want to call early elections. Letta told his Cabinet he would not put up with "threats and ultimatums." He said it was "unacceptable" that on Wednesday, while he was in New York representing Italy at the U.N. General Assembly, the pro-Berlusconi senators vowed to quit en masse.
Berlusconi's conviction carried a four-year prison sentence, although because of his age -- he turns 77 on Sunday -- and a law that shaves three years off sentences to ease jail overcrowding, the media mogul will only have to serve a year, and he can do so under house confinement.
A 2012 law says anyone convicted to more than two years in prison is ineligible to hold or run for office for six years. Berlusconi and his lawyers say the law shouldn't be applied to crimes before its passage, and contend he is the innocent victim of magistrates he claims side with the left. He is also appealing to European constitutional and human rights tribunals. Political allies also say the Senate shouldn't strip him of his seat while those challenges run their course.