ROME — The estranged former ally of Premier Silvio Berlusconi urged the Italian leader to resign and begin discussing a new program for a new government, saying Sunday that otherwise he will withdraw his ministers from the Cabinet.
In a highly anticipated speech to his supporters, Gianfranco Fini repeatedly attacked Berlusconi, who has also been engulfed in a scandal over his ties to an underage Moroccan girl and alleged encounters with a prostitute.
But Fini said he is willing to take part in an alliance with Berlusconi to spare the country early elections and shepherd it to the natural end of the legislature in 2013 — but only on the basis of a revised, shared program.
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"We can't go on this way," Fini said. "This chapter is over — or it's about to be."
Fini, speaking near Perugia, in central Italy, urged Berlusconi to "make the decision to offer his resignation."
"The premier has the honor and the burden to say if he intends to open a new phase, with a new agenda and new program, discussing and taking note of other people's opinions," Fini said in a crucial passage of his 90-minute speech. "If he has the courage... we'll do our part."
A Berlusconi resignation would not necessarily mean early elections.
Once a premier resigns, the president of the republic begins consultations to see if a new government can be formed which would enjoy parliamentary support. Only if this effort fails will the president call new elections.
Fini's appeal puts the ball back into Berlusconi's court, at a time when neither of the former allies wants to be seen as precipitating the political crisis and plunging the country into another time of political instability. Observers agree that an early election would hurt Italy at a time when the country needs economic rigor and structural reform to offset its lingering financial woes.
In his speech, Fini outlined the themes he thinks should be part of a new government program, including relaunching the economy and changing the electoral law.
Without mentioning Berlusconi's scandal directly, Fini made references to it, at one point lamenting the lack of decorum in the society and saying that public figures must set an example, whether they like it or not.
Fini and Berlusconi won the elections together in 2008, with a party they co-founded, the People of Freedom party. But after months of bickering over government measures and the structure of their party, Berlusconi and Fini had a spectacular falling out in the summer.
Berlusconi effectively expelled Fini from the party. More than 35 deputies close to Fini formed their own breakaway parliamentary group — potentially depriving Berlusconi's government of a majority in the lower house, the chamber where Fini serves as speaker.
Fini's lawmakers have so far supported the government but they have the numbers to topple it.
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