ROME — Tensions in Italy's uneasy ruling coalition increased Wednesday as the government's allies denounced an accelerated date for a high court decision that could see former Premier Silvio Berlusconi banned for years from public office.
Although Berlusconi isn't in the government himself, steady support from his center-right People of Freedom party is necessary to keep Premier Enrico Letta's 10-week-old government alive, since Letta's center-left Democratic Party doesn't have enough support in Parliament to control both houses.
But Berlusconi's allies hobbled Parliament's work following the Court of Cassation's decision to schedule an appeal in the media mogul's tax fraud trial for July 30, months earlier than expected. The high court said it moved up the date to prevent the statute of limitations from expiring on one of the charges on Aug. 1.
As if those tensions weren't enough for Letta's fragile government as it tries to revive growth and create jobs, Standard & Poors's Rating Service on Tuesday downgraded Italy's credit rating and warned of further reductions if Italy's economic prospects stay bleak.
Last week, relations had already become tense among Italy's unusual ruling alliance of rivals after the International Monetary Fund urged Italy to bring back a property tax that Letta reluctantly agreed to suspend to placate Berlusconi and his populist following.
The increased IMF pressure, the ratings drop and the high court development all "converge on a single aim — the collapse of the Letta government and the destabilization of Italy," said Alessandro Pagano, a lawmaker from Berlusconi's party.
He called the speeded up court timetable a kind of "judicial vice being tightened around" the conservative leader.
Berlusconi's lawyers had expected the high court to rule no sooner than the fall in his appeal of his tax fraud conviction involving his Mediaset empire, which saw him sentenced to four years in prison and barred from holding public office for five years.
Berlusconi was convicted in a scheme that involved inflating the price his Mediaset media empire paid for TV rights to U.S. movies and pocketing the difference. Berlusconi has said he did nothing wrong and has accused Milan magistrates of pursuing politically motivated cases against him.
Even if the top criminal court upholds the sentence, there is little risk that the 76-year-old Berlusconi, because of his age, would ever serve time behind bars.
Nevertheless, the debate over the high court decision was already having its effect on the work of the government and Parliament Wednesday: Coalition leaders scrapped a planned meeting to discuss the unpopular property tax and a meeting of chamber whips was suspended at the request of Berlusconi's allies so they could huddle to discuss the Cassation decision.
To protest the derailment of work over Berlusconi's plight, senators from the legislature's third-largest bloc, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, took off their jackets — mandatory dress code for men in the upper chamber — further heating up the political climate.
"If that's how Parliament is, if it does nothing, then we'll work out of Parliament," 5-Star leader Beppe Grillo said. "Autumn is around the corner, and with it possible economic collapse."
Letta has said he doesn't believe the court's accelerated calendar will affect his government. But even the leader of a center-right party that used to be a loyal ally of Berlusconi was irked by the behavior of Berlusconi's lawmakers.
"It's not possible that Parliament shuts down for one party's problems, with so much to do," said Roberto Maroni, head of the Northern League. Letta's government appears to be "on the true brink of a crisis."
A close Berlusconi ally, Maurizio Lupi, tried to tamp down worries about the government's survival, saying the accelerated court decision "puts at risk not the coalition, but democracy in this country."
"We will continue to do our work and move forward," said Lupi, who serves in the government as infrastructure minister.
The July 30 high court hearing leaves Berlusconi's defense team less time to prepare arguments. His lawyers only lodged the appeal on June 19. Usually it takes months to schedule such a hearing in Italy's notoriously slow justice system.
Berlusconi has faced dozens of legal cases in his two decades in politics, but has most of the time has either been acquitted or seen the charges dismissed when statutes of limitations expired.
Last month, Berlusconi was convicted, sentenced to seven years and banned from politics for life for paying an underage prostitute for sex during infamous "bunga bunga" parties and pressuring public officials to cover it up. He denies wrongdoing and is appealing that verdict as well, a process that could take a couple of years.
In Italy, sentences are considered final after two levels of appeals are exhausted.