Beleaguered Berlusconi brings Italian government to the brink

Silvio Berlusconi carries his pet dog as he arrives at his home in Rome in this image taken from video on Monday. Reuters TV

ROME -- Italy's beleaguered former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is this week facing a major decision: to leave politics or to drag the country's fragile government down with him.

In a chaotic series of events over the weekend, Berlusconi threatened to withdraw his support from the Cabinet -- leaving the government hanging by a thread.

His plan appears to have backfired.

On Saturday, Berlusconi asked five ministers from his center-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) to resign from the coalition government led by Prime Minister Enrico Letta. The resignations were offered in protest of a sales tax increase, but many in politics believe the decision was an attempt for Berlusconi to broker a way out of his personal legal problems.

But the sudden mass resignation order drew widespread criticism from within the government, including high-ranking members from Berlusconi's own party.

By Sunday night, some of the ministers asked to resign were beginning to express their doubts. Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister long considered Berlusconi's right-hand man, blamed his decision to resign on a "group of extremists" from within the party who provided him with ill-conceived advice.

In a statement published on the government's website, Letta called the excuse of the sales tax a "macroscopic lie."

"The sales tax hike is only an alibi," Letta wrote. "Berlusconi is trying to cover up the real reason behind this mad and irresponsible gesture, which is solely finalized to cover his personal travails."

Letta, among many others in parliament, believes the timing, and the reason behind Berlusconi's withdrawal of support to the government, is suspicious.

A Senate committee will vote on Friday whether to expel Berlusconi following his recent conviction on tax fraud. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison, but it was reduced to one due to an amnesty law and he will likely serve it under house arrest or community service.

The vote is required by a law stating that parliamentarians sentenced to more than two years in jail should be expelled from parliament, and banned from running for election. But Berlusconi and his allies have maintained for weeks that the sentence was political, and a way to get rid of him through "left-wing" magistrates, and threatened to withdraw their essential support to the government if he is unseated from the Senate.

Berlusconi asking his ministers to withdraw days before the vote at the Senate committee is seen by analysts as a last, desperate attempt to influence its outcome.

"It looks like Berlusconi was hoping to bring down the government, so to have early elections before he is kicked out of the Senate," Nicola Rossi, a political economy professor at Rome's Tor Vergata University told NBC News. "Once again, unfortunately, Berlusconi's personal troubles overlap with Italy's government, which should really concentrate on the much-needed reform at a time of economic uncertainty."

Following an emergency meeting with Italy's president Giorgio Napolitano late Sunday, Letta said: "I will address parliament on Wednesday and ask for a vote of confidence. By then, everyone will have to assume responsibility for their decisions, and show transparency."

If Letta's government does not win a majority in the confidence vote, he said he would resign from office. Fresh elections could follow.