Italian president hopes to solve political crisis without new vote

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s president began talks yesterday to pull the country out of a new political crisis, attempting to undercut a move by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to bring down the government and force new elections seven months after the last vote.

For the third time since 2011, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano is trying to steer the country out of political chaos that has proven a major threat, not only to the euro zone’s third-largest economy, but to the region’s efforts to halt its four-year debt crisis. The latest turmoil was set off on Saturday when the five Cabinet ministers who are from Berlusconi’s party suddenly stepped down, leaving the government only formally in place.

The resignations were set off by clashes at a Friday Cabinet meeting over an imminent sales tax hike. Tensions have been running high in Prime Minister Gianni Letta’s uneasy coalition of left and right parties ever since last month, when Berlusconi, who is a member of Parliament, was convicted of tax fraud. Lawmakers must vote on whether to oust him.

Letta will go before parliament on Wednesday and hold a confidence vote to verify what is left of his parliamentary backing. He has a commanding majority in the lower house, and if he can gain support from a few dozen senators among dissenting Berlusconi followers or opposition parties, he could form a new government. But if he doesn’t find support – and Napolitano does not try to form a transition government – then Italy would find itself quickly back at the polls. In a television interview on Sunday evening, Letta said he sensed that there might be rebels within Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. “I hope that there is a part of the PDL which is not in accord with Berlusconi,” he told RAI television.

Over the weekend cracks appeared within Berlusconi’s PDL. While Berlusconi said he wanted to go straight to elections, other centre-right politicians voiced more caution and said Saturday’s resignations were an extreme act. One longtime Berlusconi loyalist, Fabrizio Cicchitto, expressed rare dissent over the way Berlusconi had withdrawn his ministers without party consultation.

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