Relations between the partners in Italy's coalition government seemed close to breaking point on Thursday over whether to evict Silvio Berlusconi from parliament over a tax fraud conviction.
A row is raging between Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party and the center-left Democratic Party (PD) of Prime Minister Enrico Letta following the 76-year-old media mogul's conviction by the supreme court early this month.
PDL sources said party secretary Angelino Alfano told Letta in a tense meeting on Wednesday night that the party would bring down the government if the PD voted in the Senate next month to throw Berlusconi out of parliament, something the center-left party has repeatedly said it will do.
Alfano said on Thursday he was very worried about the PD taking such a clear line before even hearing arguments in a Senate committee which begins meeting on September 9.
"We very clearly ask that the PD thinks about this, abandoning 20 years of hostility, and reflects on the wisdom of voting to remove Berlusconi," he said.
The PDL cites some legal experts as saying the anti-corruption law, under which Berlusconi would be expelled from parliament and prevented from standing as a political candidate, cannot be applied in this case.
But PD secretary Guglielmo Epifani said they wouldn't change their minds and the country could not afford a government crisis just as it starts to see the first tentative signs of recovery from its worst postwar recession.
Many PD members are up in arms over even sharing in a coalition with Berlusconi's party and any attempt to save their sworn enemy could break apart the already fractious center left.
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"For us the compass is the interests of the country which come before our interests and even more so ahead of the interests of a single person," Epifani said.
Letta says the government must forge ahead to encourage economic recovery and Berlusconi's judicial problems are not an issue for his administration. "I will not accept blackmail and neither are ultimatums acceptable," he said on Wednesday night.