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Berlusconi's conviction adds uncertainty to Italian coalition government

The Italian coalition government sailed in blue water on Friday, a day after the Supreme Court sentenced the former premier Silvio Berlusconi to four years in jail for tax fraud.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta, leader of the left-right alliance, reassured on the coalition government's stability immediately after the verdict.

But shortly after that, tension mounted to threaten the fragile coalition when the media mogul and three-time premier said in a meeting with lawmakers of his center-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) that he would prepare for a fresh election if the current government does not pursue judicial reforms.

His entourage said that the PDL would call on President Giorgio Napolitano to issue Berlusconi a presidential pardon. Napolitano helped form the Letta-led coalition government in April, ending months of post-election political deadlock so that the deepening economic crisis could be tackled.

"Berlusconi will stay in politics, in one way or another. Politics is his way of life, business and insurance policy," Beppe Severgnini, a columnist of a popular national newspaper and an author of a book on Berlusconi, told Xinhua.

Experts said that only the electorate can kick Berlusconi out of politics for good. "But about 25 percent of Italian voters think he is a victim of the magistrates. Berlusconi will hold on to them like a man at sea holding on to a lifeboat."

The future of the coalition remains uncertain, with Letta struggling to contain increasing dissatisfaction in his own center-left Democratic Party (PD) as well as the PDL, whose party members include several ministers such as the Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, who said Friday he was ready to resign in response to the verdict.

The upper house is expected to hold a vote on stripping the 76 year old of his post as Senator before the review of a ban on office, also part of the sentence, is completed.

Berlusconi was ordered to serve four years in prison, a sentence that has been commuted to one year under a 2006 amnesty and will consist of detention under house arrest or community service rather than jail due to his age.

Being outside the parliament, the billionaire is still able to lead his center-right party.

"Though neither PDL nor PD have the intention to trigger a crisis of government, what counts most in politics is not purposes but facts," Daniele Bellasio, social media editor at a financial newspaper, told Xinhua. He added that Berlusconi has pledged to continue his "battle" while the PD will have to decide whether to vote for his dismissal from the Senate.

Though Letta repeated on Friday that political instability is the last thing Italy needs, the prime minister warned that he will not continue leading the government "at all costs" if the political turmoil becomes unbearable after the conviction.

"In fact, the problem is that main players do not want to bring down the government but are acting as if they were already campaigning for national elections, which threatens political stability," Bellasio noted.

Sebastiano Messina, a political commentator at a popular Italian daily newspaper and author, told Xinhua that "something may be about to change" in the government's composition.

He thought that Napolitano, who would have to decide whether to call new elections if the ruling coalition fell apart, is not willing to hold national elections before 2015.

"Italy is set to assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second semester of next year, so it cannot present itself without a government," Messina clarified. The president said the country needs "cohesion" but whether that will be possible remains to be seen.

"The outcomes will depend on the capacity of PD to bear alliance with a party led by a man sentenced to four years in prison and on whether Berlusconi will seek early voting to capture the existing large popular consensus," he said.

For the moment, the only certain consequence of the verdict, Messina stressed, is that "Berlusconi will never be prime minister again, nor minister or Italian president as he most wished."

Prosecutors on Friday issued an order to make the conviction take effect and began procedures for the confiscation of Berlusconi's passport.

[Source: By Marzia De Giuli, Xinhua, Rome, 02Aug13]

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