(Reuters) – Italy’s Gianfranco Fini, the increasingly dissenting co-founder of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party, has enough support to bring the government down, a Fini ally warned Saturday.
Fini has publicly challenged Berlusconi’s policies and leadership style in recent months, fuelling speculation he might lead a faction against the embattled premier.
Comments published Saturday by Fini associate Italo Bocchino will add pressure on Berlusconi, who faces two confidence votes in parliament — the first is expected on July 15 — on an unpopular 25-billion euros austerity budget.
Berlusconi has said that he would resign, as required by the constitution, if he lost the votes.
Asked by independent news outlet CNR Media how many followers could Fini count on, Bocchino said in a video interview: “At least one more than the number needed to keep the ruling coalition afloat.”
The Italian media were quick to pick up on signs of a widening rift between Fini and Berlusconi. Bocchino later said his words, which were posted on CNR Media website (www.cnrmedia.com), were misinterpreted.
He said in a statement Fini’s backers were “decisive” to keep the government going and would vote with the ruling coalition “until the last day of the legislature.”
Ever since Fini and Berlusconi publicly clashed at a party congress in April, there has been much speculation about whether dissenters within Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party had the numbers to deprive him of his parliamentary majority.
Il Giornale newspaper, which is owned by the Berlusconi family, calculated this week that without Fini and his allies, the government could count on 316 votes in the lower house of parliament — a majority of just one vote.
In the Senate, Il Giornale said that the center right without Fini and his allies had a five-vote majority at 162, but that did not include seven life senators, all of whom are former heads of state or otherwise distinguished public figures.
Fini, who is speaker of the lower house, and Berlusconi have exchanged regular barbs through the media, fuelling speculation that their enmity could destroy the coalition and force the appointment of a new government or snap elections.
The rivalry has leaked into the battle Berlusconi faces to push through parliament the austerity package designed to shore up Italy’s public finances.
The package, including spending freezes and pay cuts in the public sector, faces opposition from groups ranging from the unions to cash-strapped regional governments, with critics saying it bleeds workers and spares the rich.
Even diplomats have called a strike against the measures.
Berlusconi’s approval rating fell nine points to 41 percent over the past six weeks, according to a survey in Corriere della Sera daily this week, and his government appears more vulnerable than it has been since it took office in May 2008.
Two ministers have resigned in as many months over corruption accusations, while protests have been growing over a draft bill that would limit the use of wiretaps by police and punish newspapers that print transcript leaks.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)