Berlusconi pleads for support

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi pleaded with MPs for his political life today on the eve of crucial confidence votes.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi pleaded with MPs for his political life today on the eve of crucial confidence votes.

He urged them to support him, warning that bringing down his government would be "folly" because stability was essential as the country battled an economic crisis.

Mr Berlusconi appealed to rebels who have vowed to try to oust him during tomorrow's votes.

He offered to negotiate a new agenda that would allow the government to survive until new parliamentary elections are held in 2013, as well as a Cabinet reshuffle to give government positions to those who support him in the crucial parliamentary test.

"The last thing Italy needs is a political crisis," Mr Berlusconi argued in a 30-minute speech to the Senate.

He faces votes in both houses of parliament after a dramatic falling-out with his one-time closest ally, Gianfranco Fini, his party's co-founder.

The 74-year-old Mr Berlusconi was once immensely popular, but his approval ratings have nose-dived and his political capital diluted amid scandals engulfing his private life, reports of lavish parties and alleged encounters with prostitutes.

Mr Berlusconi based much of his speech on the risks Italy would face in the event of a government downfall.

His government has generally won praise for its reaction to the global financial crisis, steadfastly directed by Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti and including a rigorous austerity package.

Italy has high public debt and recently faced renewed threats of becoming engulfed in the euro zone's debt crisis. But the country is still widely viewed as low-risk due to the low level of private debt, relatively sound banking system, and experience in dealing with high public debt levels.

"If your concern over Italy's difficult situation is honest and real, then the only possible way forward is renewing confidence in my government," Mr Berlusconi said. Such a vote, he said, "will be proof of realism and political wisdom".

But early reaction to his appeal was negative.

A Fini ally, Adolfo Urso, branded the speech "frankly disappointing given the expectations and the needs of the country." Mr Urso is one of four members of the cabinet who resigned after the break-up between Mr Fini and Mr Berlusconi.

The premier is expected to win in the Senate, where MPs will be voting on a motion in support of the government brought by Mr Berlusconi's allies.

He risks more in the lower house, where the split with Mr Fini has potentially deprived him of a majority. With the no-confidence vote expected to be decided by just a handful of votes, Mr Berlusconi has been trying to persuade the undecided.

Speculation of vote-buying has been rife, but Mr Berlusconi's allies have rejected the accusations.

Mr Berlusconi offered to "strengthen the government lineup" - code word for a Cabinet shuffle. He said dialogue with moderates will be possible, but only if they ensure support for the government in the votes.

He has rejected the requests of the Fini camp to resign ahead of the parliamentary votes.

If he wins, he is assured more time in office, even though a razor-thin majority is no guarantee of stability. If he loses, he has to resign - a move that might lead to early elections.

That decision rests with the president, Giorgio Napolitano, who could alternatively ask Mr Berlusconi to form a new government.

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