- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2010

The resignations of four Italian Cabinet members Monday threw Rome once again into political chaos, as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi prepared for a confidence vote he is likely to lose and the early elections that would follow.

All four departing Cabinet members are loyalists of Mr. Berlusconi’s ally-turned-rival Gianfranco Fini, the center-right president of the lower house of Parliament.

Mr. Fini, formerly a foreign minister and deputy prime minister, has led a breakaway faction since his falling out with the premier in July - a faction strong enough to deprive Mr. Berlusconi of a parliamentary majority. He had promised to withdraw his allies from the government if Mr. Berlusconi, whom he has accused of anti-democratic tendencies, did not resign. Mr. Berlusconi refused.

Mr. Berlusconi has called for a confidence vote first in the Senate, where he still enjoys a narrow majority, and then in the lower house, presumably hoping he can lure enough members of other parties to compensate for the loss of Mr. Fini’s deputies, who helped him survive a similar vote in September.

A loss in either house, according to the Italian constitution, would force Mr. Berlusconi to resign, most likely prompting early elections. But few expect the 74-year-old billionaire, who has weathered multiple corruption and sex scandals, to go quietly.

“Don’t read the newspapers,” Mr. Berlusconi said at a rally Sunday. “Voters still exist, and 60 percent of them are with me.”

Italian political analysts agreed that although it is likely Mr. Berlusconi would win early elections in the spring, there are too many unknown variables to predict an outcome.

“This is an open-ended crisis - ‘una crisi al buio,’ as we say in Italian - meaning that no actor knows which scenario is more likely,” said Paolo Segatti, a political science professor at the University of Milan, stressing that the major political players preferred to bypass elections if they could get a new government on their terms.

Mr. Segatti said the Northern League, Mr. Berlusconi’s junior coalition partner, “is becoming the crucial player.”

“If they abandon Berlusconi, we will have a new government without elections. If they stay loyal to Berlusconi, a new election will be likely,” he said.

If Mr. Berlusconi maintains his alliance with the Northern League and his opponents remain fragmented, polls indicate he is likely to win another term. An anti-Berlusconi coalition of the left and the center, however, could pose a threat even if such a governing alignment would prove highly unstable.

“If the center and the left do not reach a serious agreement, and if the electoral law is not significantly changed, then, as things are today, Berlusconi in alliance with [Northern League leader Umberto] Bossi is likely to win the relative majority of votes and obtain an important majority bonus that will allow him to create another government,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, professor of political science at the University of Bologna.

Mr. Berlusconi has proved his resilience, reclaiming the top job in a 2008 electoral landslide after losing it in 2006 after five years at the helm. His first stint as premier, in the mid-1990s, lasted 10 months.

Mr. Berlusconi has been a fierce U.S. ally, becoming one of the most vocal Western European supporters of the U.S. campaign to topple Saddam Hussein. His defense minister announced last month that Italy would increase its troop strength in Afghanistan to 4,000 by the end of the year.

If the move goes ahead as scheduled, Italy will overtake France to become the third-largest non-U.S. contributor to the International Security Assistance Force, behind Britain and Germany.