Italian ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s warning that his party could withdraw its support for the government was seen by the press Sunday as a declaration of war against Prime Minister Mario Monti and a bid to show he still carries political weight.
However analysts saw it as an empty threat made in anger which could even end up hurting Berlusconi’s centre-right party.
“In the next few days we will decide with the leadership of my party whether it is better to immediately withdraw our confidence or to keep it, given the upcoming election (in April),” Berlusconi said at a press conference on Saturday after he was sentenced to jail for tax fraud.
“We need to weigh this government policy that leads to a spiral of recession for our economy” against the way “a vote of no-confidence could be seen by the world of finance,” the 76-year-old added.
Reactions to Berlusconi’s comments were splashed across the front pages of the Italian press on Sunday, with the leading Corriere della Sera saying “Berlusconi threatens to topple Monti”, while other headlines declared “Berlusconi attacks Monti” and “Berlusconi against Monti”.
“Berlusconi in his bunker has declared war on Monti and Merkel,” leftwing daily Il Fatto Quotidiano said, referring to Berlusconi’s accusation that the Italian prime minister was following policy dictated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party is the biggest in parliament, and could force early polls if it withdraws backing for Monti’s technocrat government.
But for Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at Rome’s John Cabot university, “it was a threat by a bitter and furious man, the childish reaction of a man who is at the end of his political career”.
In fact PDL could “lose all credibility by following these sudden jolts by a man who attacks a government that he praised just… days earlier, just because he was found guilty,” added Pavoncello.
The vice-chairman of PDL parliamentarians, Osvaldo Napoli, also sought to minimise Berlusconi’s warning, claiming that the former prime minister was just “venting” his anger and noting that “a change in direction could destabilise the party’s strategy”.
Berlusconi was on Friday sentenced to four years in jail for tax fraud and banned from holding public office.
However, the jail term was immediately cut to one year under a 2006 amnesty law aimed at reducing overcrowding in prisons — and it is unlikely Berlusconi will serve even that, given Italy’s lengthy appeals process.
His lawyers have already said they will appeal, and he is considered certain to stave off any imprisonment or ban on his political activities.
The defiant ex-premier has vowed to remain in politics to reform the justice system that found him guilty, although he announced last week that he would neither run in next year’s election nor seek the post of premier.
Berlusconi is currently on trial for fraud, bribery and paying for sex with a 17-year-old prostitute nicknamed “Ruby the Heart Stealer”.
The sex trial was one of the last in a series of scandals that helped precipitate the media tycoon’s downfall.
The scandal-hit three-time premier was toppled in November last year over his handling of the economy in the face of deep financial crisis and was succeeded by Monti, a sober economist and former European commissioner.
Berlusconi’s latest comments came as tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Rome during a “No Monti Day” Saturday called by unions, leftwing parties and other groups to protest at austerity measures in recession-hit Italy.
Critics have accused Monti of failing to boost growth and of stifling the population with high taxes. Italy’s unemployment rate is at 10.7 percent, but much higher among younger voters.
Sicilians were also voting on Sunday in a regional ballot on the Mediterranean island, and the latest opinion polls say a PDL member is running head-to-head for Sicily regional president against a candidate from the leftwing Democratic Party (PD).