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Resignations from Berlusconi's party put Italy's government in danger

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 6:21 p.m.
Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi cited a 1-percentage-point increase in the nation's sales tax in his party's decision to withdraw from parliament.

Italian center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi pulled his ministers out of the cabinet on Saturday, effectively bringing down the government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta and leaving the eurozone's third-largest economy in chaos.

Talks will now start to find a parliamentary majority to back a new cabinet and avoid an election just seven months after the last one.

The relentless political jockeying that has defined Letta's five-month tenure has thwarted efforts to push through important reforms Italy needs to emerge from a two-year recession, a decade-long economic lethargy, a 2-trillion-euro public debt and youth unemployment of about 40 percent.

The resignations will delay those reforms even further.

On Friday, Letta had challenged Berlusconi's party to support him in a confidence vote in parliament.

Late on Friday, the cabinet failed to agree on vital fiscal measures to bring the budget deficit within European Union limits, leaving the fragile coalition of traditional rivals from the left and right near total breakdown.

Tensions between the two sides had been rising for weeks following moves to expel Berlusconi from parliament after his conviction for tax fraud last month.

The Friday cabinet meeting had been intended to find funding to avert an increase in the sales tax rate from 21 percent to 22 percent. That increase, which has been fiercely opposed by Berlusconi's center-right party, will now kick in from Tuesday.

“The decision taken by Prime Minister Enrico Letta to freeze government activities, and therefore setting off an increase in sales tax, is a serious violation of the pacts on which this government was formed,” Berlusconi said in a statement.

Letta shot back later in the evening, accusing the former prime minister of telling a “huge lie” and of using the sales tax issue as an alibi for an action motivated by his legal problems.

Lawmakers from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party this week threatened to walk out of parliament if a Senate committee meeting on October 4 voted to begin proceedings to expel their leader, who will turn 77 on Sunday, under legislation that bars convicted criminals from parliament.

Some opposition politicians called for early elections, but Deputy Economy Minister Stefano Fassina, from Letta's Democratic Party, said he expected a new coalition could be formed.

“I don't see elections. We won't go to them. We will find a solution in parliament,” Fassina told La7 television. “I am sure there is a majority in parliament able to avoid elections.”

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