By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
ROME (AP) — The Italian government appeared in peril Thursday after nearly all the senators of Silvio Berlusconi's party vowed to resign if the former premier is ousted from Parliament for his tax fraud conviction.
Premier Enrico Letta announced in New York that he would go see the Italian president as soon as he returns to Rome on Friday to discuss how to move forward with what he called the "humiliation" Italy is going through.
The Senate is due to vote next week on whether to strip Berlusconi of his seat following his conviction of tax fraud and four-year prison sentence. A 2012 law bans anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison from holding or running for public office for six years.
Berlusconi has not only proclaimed his innocence, but has challenged the law's applicability since it was passed after the crimes occurred. Arguing that prosecutors are bent on eliminating him from political life, he has appealed to both Italy's Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to intervene.
With tensions high, 87 of the 91 senators of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party turned in letters of resignation Thursday pending the outcome of the Oct. 4 vote, said Renato Schifani, head of Berlusconi's party in the Senate.
"It's a persecution that began in 1994 and is being completed now," Schifani told TG4 news, referring to Berlusconi's entry into politics. He argued the Senate vote shouldn't take place until after Italy's Constitutional Court reviews the 2012 law.
Berlusconi was convicted over a scheme to purchase the rights to broadcast U.S. movies on his Mediaset empire through a series of offshore companies that involved the false declaration of payments to avoid taxes. His defense argued that he was busy in politics at the time and no longer involved in managing the day-to-day activities of the business.
Italy's high court upheld the conviction on Aug. 1.
Berlusconi has flip-flopped on his view of whether Letta's coalition should survive, saying only recently that he wouldn't bring down the government. Five of his allies are Cabinet ministers, including his political heir Angelino Alfano, the deputy premier.
Investors responded to the political tensions with concern Thursday.
Milan's stock index closed down 1.2 percent while the government's borrowing rates on the bond markets rose, both signs that investors are worried about the impact on the country's financial stability. Though Italy hasn't needed a financial bailout like other countries that use the euro, such as Greece and Portugal, it has high debts that have compelled successive governments to instigate wide-ranging economic reforms.
Italy's respected President Giorgio Napolitano issued a blistering rebuke of the lawmakers' threat to resign, saying Thursday they were undermining Italy's parliamentary system. He said if carried out, their "worrisome" threat would have the effect of pressuring him into dissolving parliament, a move that would spark a crisis in Letta's 5-month-old, left-right hybrid government.
Napolitano said it was "absurd" for Berlusconi's allies to claim that the media mogul was being overthrown in a "coup" by magistrates. He insisted that definitive court rulings must be respected and applied, saying it's a principle that is as sacrosanct throughout Europe as the independence of the judiciary itself.
"There is still time, and I hope it is used, for People of Freedom lawmakers to find a way to express their political and human support for their party president — if indeed that is their aim — without threatening the work of two branches of parliament," he said.
The threat to essentially bring down the government over the legal woes of a single man was seen as downright irresponsible given that it came at the precise time that Letta was in New York promoting recession-mired Italy as a safe place for foreign investment.
Gianluca Susta, who heads the Civic Choice party of ex-Premier Mario Monti in the Senate, said any such resignation by Berlusconi's lawmakers would make them appear more like the "court of an absolute monarchy" than elected representatives in a democracy.