Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s once comfortable majority in parliament has been eroded by the defection of 32 lawmakers in support of his estranged longtime ally.
Berlusconi broke with parliament speaker Gianfranco Fini, a former neo-fascist with whom he co-founded the People of Freedom (PDL) party last year, late on Thursday after months of acrimony.
Fini described their split as an “ugly chapter” for Italian politics and vowed to stand up for “public ethics”.
The defection on Friday of the 32 PDL deputies, who are calling their new parliamentary group Future and Freedom for Italy, leaves a significant dent in Berlusconi’s parliamentary coalition.
It will make him even more reliant on the support of the 59 deputies for the anti-immigration Northern League and up to two dozen other MPs who usually vote with the centre-right.
The 73-year-old Berlusconi, in power for a third time since elections in 2008, had late on Thursday demanded that Fini leave his post as speaker.
But in a brief statement on Friday, Fini confirmed he had refused to stand down and he was determined to defend the rule of law at a time when several high-ranking members of Berlusconi’s government are embroiled in scandal.
Fini, 58, said he would defend legality “in the fullest sense of the term”.
Millions of “honest PDL voters… do not understand why in our party the protection of civil liberties, a sacrosanct principle, too often is a pretext for impunity”, Fini said.
Animosity has been building between the flamboyant Berlusconi and Fini for months, erupting in a public spat in April when the speaker said dissent should be allowed within the PDL.
The defections lower the number of PDL lawmakers to 239 out of the 630-seat parliament.
Fini, formerly head of the right-wing post-fascist National Alliance, has been a key ally of Berlusconi since the billionaire media tycoon entered politics in 1994.
Enjoying a ready pulpit as speaker of parliament as well as the power to shape the legislative agenda, Fini put himself on a collision course with Berlusconi by helping water down a controversial bill limiting telephone taps that the premier strongly supported.
Corruption scandals dogging Berlusconi have seen three resignations, including those of two ministers, in recent months.
Berlusconi, who is flagging in opinion polls and himself has recurrent legal troubles connected to his sprawling media empire, said Fini’s positions were “absolutely incompatible” with those of the PDL.
But Fini refused to resign, saying the speaker’s job was “not at the beck and call of the prime minister”.
Fini had made a last-minute bid for reconciliation with the premier, saying in an interview on Thursday they should “examine everything from every angle without resentment”.