Italian coalition cracks deepen as Berlusconi minister survives vote over deportation flap

  • Article by: FRANCES D'EMILIO , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 19, 2013 - 8:50 AM

ROME — Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's main man in Italy's tense government survived a no-confidence vote Friday in Parliament, but cracks deepened in the fragile ruling alliance as some coalition lawmakers withheld support because of the minister's role in deporting the family of Kazakh opposition figure.

The no-confidence motion in the Senate, brought by opposition lawmakers, was aimed at ousting Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who is Berlusconi's designated political heir, as well as secretary of the media mogul's center-right People of Freedom party and deputy premier. Had the no-confidence bid succeeded, and Berlusconi yanked support in anger, the government would have tottered toward collapse.

Premier Enrico Letta urged members of his center-left party to support Alfano. But three of his party's senators abstained after criticizing the minister's role in the deportation case. The abstentions aggravated the coalition's already shaky image.

A pro-Berlusconi senator, Anna Maria Bernini, branded the no-confidence motion as a bid "to collapse the political equilibrium," and depicted Alfano as a victim of a "campaign to throw the government in crisis."

Alfano has insisted he didn't know that Kazakhstan's ambassador in Rome had demanded that Italian police immediately deport the wife and 6-year-old daughter of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakhstan businessman widely said to have funded opposition parties and media in his homeland.

Kazakhstan authorities want him on charges of siphoning off billions of dollars from BTA bank, based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Ablyazov, contending that the allegations are politically motivated, has denied wrongdoing. His whereabouts are unknown.

Police officials said the ambassador, paying calls on top-ranking police and ministry officials, essentially ordered Italian police to raid the family's house in Rome to arrest the businessman. Ablyazov wasn't found in the police raid in May but the wife and child were there, and Italy caved in to the diplomat's demands to hustle the two on a private jet to Kazahkstan.

When the scandal came to light, Letta revoked the expulsion orders, but the woman and child were already in Kazakhstan. Alfano this week fired top ministry and police officials for the deportations.

While the vote was technically about Alfano's conduct, Letta in a speech to the Senate equated it to a referendum on his three-month-old government and urged the coalition to stay solid so Italy could pursue its uphill course of reviving the stagnant economy.

So far the government has failed to revive job growth, and has spent weeks bickering over the fate of a property tax that Berlusconi promised voters would be abolished. Instead Letta temporarily suspended payment of the tax, which brings in 4 billion euros ($5.2 billion )a year in sorely needed revenue.

Rejecting the no-confidence motion "will allow the government to keep working in the coming weeks" on the economy, Letta told the lawmakers. He asked Parliament to vie him "full faith" in his "determination and endurance" in tackling the stubborn economic slump. He staunchly defended Alfano, insisting the minister was extraneous to the deportation flap.

A key senator in Letta's party, Luigi Zanda, voiced suspicion that the interests of Italy's energy giant ENI in Kazakhstan's rich oil and gas reserves might have made Italy susceptible to the ambassador's pressures.

Giving a further show of the grumbling among bitter coalition allies, Zanda also complained that perhaps Alfano had too many roles "in his 24 hour day" to properly concentrate on his responsibilities as interior minister, overseeing state police and implementation of immigration policy.

Others in Letta's party also made clear their doubts about whether Alfano should stay in office.

"If he knew (about the Kazakhstan pressures), and he lied, that's a bit of a problem," said Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, who, while not in Parliament, is a key contender for the premiership in the next election. "Let me say this: if he didn't know, that would be almost worse."

Berlusconi, whose conservatives finished second behind's Letta's Democratic Party in February's elections, hasn't been showing up much in the Senate, as he concentrates on his legal woes stemming from his business empire. But he came Friday for the vote, and when Alfano survived the attempt to oust him, shook his hand. The two strode out of the Senate hall together.

On July 30, Italy's top criminal Cassation Court will hear Berlusconi's final appeal of a tax fraud conviction. If the conviction and sentence are withheld, the leader, who jumped into politics two decades ago, would be banned for years from public office in addition to facing a prison term.

The approaching court date has ratcheted up tensions in the coalition, although Berlusconi has insisted that if he loses the appeal, it shouldn't doom the government. But some of Berlusconi's allies say if the conviction sticks, the coalition will collapse quickly.

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