Berlusconi wins Senate vote of confidence

Premier Silvio Berlusconi won a second and final vote of confidence in parliament today, clearing the last hurdle before his new government is fully empowered to rule following a crisis that had raised the possibility of early elections.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi won a second and final vote of confidence in parliament today, clearing the last hurdle before his new government is fully empowered to rule following a crisis that had raised the possibility of early elections.

The premier hopes his new Cabinet will allow him to lead the country to a general vote in mid-2006 and improve his popularity, which has been sagging due to a weak economy and repercussions from the mistaken shooting of an Italian intelligence agent by US forces in Iraq last month.

"With the two votes of confidence, we have given a show of closeness and cohesion," Berlusconi said after today's 170-117 vote in the Senate. The lower house of parliament gave its approval yesterday.

"We start afresh with enthusiasm," he said.

The government crisis reached a head last week when Berlusconi resigned briefly following a crushing defeat in regional elections across the country. He soon moved to form a new government with a revamped platform - a technique used by Italian premiers for decades to strengthen their coalitions.

The centre-left opposition had demanded early elections, emboldened by its electoral success and polls suggesting it would win a general vote. The opposition claims the new Cabinet won't be able to tackle the country's problems.

"The crisis didn't solve anything, its solution even less so: the problems remain," said Gavino Angius, Senate whip for the Democrats of the Left. "The political leadership is diminishing, the government project is failing."

Berlusconi says he will stand before voters next year having kept his promises: tax cuts for businesses and a new push to lift Italy's poorer south, as well as help for families whose buying power he says has decreased since the introduction of the euro.

But some of the premier's own partners have given a lukewarm reception to the new Cabinet. A key centrist ally - which withdrew from the government at the height of the crisis earlier this month - said it would support the Cabinet "with no illusions."

More headaches come from the economy.

In a 30-minute address to the Senate before the vote, the media magnate-turned-politician blamed many of Italy's economic woes on global trends and accused the European Central Bank of keeping the euro too strong, a move he said was hurting European exports.

"The solution does not depend on a national government - it concerns the European Central Bank," he said. He described the bank's policy as "destructive for the competitiveness of all companies in Europe."

Berlusconi has faced opposition attacks over Italy's faltering economic growth and its fiscal deficit. The government has forecast 2.1% growth for this year, but it is expected to lower the figure soon.

The effort to revive the conservative coalition's momentum coincides with a public outcry following reports that the US had absolved its soldiers of blame in the March 4 shooting death of Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari at a US checkpoint on Baghdad's airport road.

Calipari, who had just helped free kidnapped journalist Giuliana Sgrena, became a hero in Italy, where people strongly opposed Berlusconi's decision to send 3,000 troops to Iraq after the US-led invasion.

The premier has put his government's prestige on the line with assurances that full light would be shed on the shooting. Any public finding seen to absolve the US soldiers would likely undermine his credibility.

"We certainly will never endorse things that do not convince us," Berlusconi said today, according to news agencies ANSA and Apcom. "If there are differing positions, they will emerge."

Both sides said this week they were still working on the final report of a US-Italian investigation into the shooting. Italian and US officials attached to the coalition force in Baghdad were trying to negotiate a document that could resolve the impasse, US officials said.

When Berlusconi reluctantly resigned as premier last week, he ended Italy's longest-serving post-war government after four years.

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