Berlusconi struggles to hold coalition together

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has one day left to win over party and coalition rebels threatening to bring down his government in a backlash over its failure to adopt reforms.

Estimates vary widely over how many centre-right deputies will jump ship in a crunch vote on public finance in the Parliament tomorrow (8 November). Berlusconi's message to potential "traitors" is clear: you have nowhere else to go and you will be rewarded if you stay.

The scandal-ridden 75-year-old media tycoon has defied all calls to step down and is adamant that he can battle on.

"We have checked in the last few hours and the numbers are certain, we still have a majority," he told party followers yesterday (6 November).

The centre-left opposition quickly dismissed that assertion and said it was preparing a motion of no-confidence in the government that would bring Berlusconi down even if he should survive Tuesday's vote.

"Berlusconi is bluffing in a last desperate attempt to save himself. He no longer has a majority in the Chamber," said Dario Franceschini of the main opposition Democratic party.

One newspaper, Corriere della Sera, described the atmosphere within Berlusconi’s own party, the People of Freedom Party (PDL), as being like "the end of Pompeii" and speculated that the prime minister could be faced with the "nightmare" of up to 40 MPs defecting from the government.

Newspapers have estimated the number of potential defectors at between 20 and 40, which would be more than enough to topple the government, but in previous narrow escapes Berlusconi has proved his powers of last-minute persuasion.

He has been meeting and telephoning rebels since he returned from a humiliating international summit in France, in the margin of the G20, which agreed the International Monetary Fund would visit Italy quarterly to check its progress in passing long-delayed reforms.

Italy has the third biggest economy in the eurozone and its political turmoil and debt worries are seen as a huge threat in the wider crisis facing the continent's single currency.

Berlusconi's latest assurance over his majority may be bad news for Italian bonds, which sold off again on Friday to push their yield to a record euro-era high above 6.4%.

The spread over German bunds, reflecting the higher risk premium investors place on Italy, also hit a record above 4.6%.

Bond prices would recover and the yield spread would fall by a full percentage point if the government should fall, according to a Reuters survey of 10 fund managers, market analysts and strategists last week.

Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti was forced to deny reports that he had forecast a "catastrophe" on financial markets this week unless Berlusconi stepped down.

European Central Bank council member Yves Mersch underscored the high stakes, stressing that the ECB frequently debates the option of ending its purchases of Italian bonds unless Rome delivers on reforms.

Without that bond-buying programme, the run on Italian bonds would probably already have spiralled way out of control.

Berlusconi on Sunday rejected talk of being succeeded by an unelected technocratic government or a political administration with the backing of all the forces in parliament, saying: "The only alternative to this government would be elections."

He also seemed to be having second thoughts over the IMF monitoring, saying the initiative for the visits "came from us and we can withdraw it whenever we want".

Businessman shows the way

Meanwhile, a Tuscan entrepreneur has stolen the limelight, as he bought a full-page advertisement in the Corriere della Sera urging Italians to buy up the country’s debt and prevent a potential country’s default.

Giuliano Melani, in his appeal, says the bill for Italian government bonds expiring annually is €260 billion to €270 billion, a sum which would be taken care of if every Italian paid €4,500.

"To overcome the crisis, we should not sell our country," he said. "There are many things to do, but now there is just one thing – let's buy the debt!" he added.

"Our problem is the debt also because of the incorrect behaviour of each one of us," he said. “When we did not pay the right taxes, when we buy medicine that we regularly throw away, when we elected poor politicians,” he noted.

Corriere della Sera asked Italy's banks to drop commissions on bond sales for a day, which Corrado Passera, the chief executive of Intesa Sanpaolo bank, has agreed to.

Italy's mix of chronically low growth, a public debt mountain of €1.84 trillion, or 120% of GDP, and a struggling governing coalition are causing growing alarm in financial markets.

The country, which is politically unstable, would need at least €600 billion in the case of a bailout, more than the eurozone's current bailout fund.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last month pushed through a €60 billion austerity package – bringing forward its original balanced-budget

target by one year – in return for the European Central Bank's support for its battered government bonds market.

However, doubts remain over Berlusconi's ability to implement these austerity measures.

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