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Italy's Berlusconi fights for his political life

From Hada Messia, CNN
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Italian political betrayal?
  • He's due to face a vote of confidence Tuesday
  • He urged lawmakers to support him, saying Italy does not need a crisis now
  • Berlusconi fell out with a rival over the summer, splitting his party

Rome (CNN) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi fought for his political life in a speech to lawmakers Monday, a day before a vote that could see him dumped as head of the government.

He is scheduled to face a confidence vote in Parliament on Tuesday, the latest in a series of votes on his leadership since a dispute with a former ally over the summer. The three-term prime minister survived the last one in September, when members of the lower house of Parliament voted 342-275 to back his plans.

"He who votes against us is betraying the mandate received from the electorate," Berlusconi said in his half-hour speech.

"In these particularly hard times for our country, we all have to find a way to be united and do what is best for the country," he said, adding that "a crisis" was the last thing Italy needed now.

He who votes against us is betraying the mandate received from the electorate.
--Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

He said he needed a mandate to complete judicial and institutional reforms and deal with the country's economic problems.

And he called on supporters of his rival Gianfranco Fini not to support the left by voting against him, saying they must not "subtract" votes from the right "in order to add them to the opposition."

Both Berlusconi's and Fini's parties are on the center-right. The prime minister threw Fini out of his party over the summer, and Fini took about 40 lawmakers with him to form the Future and Liberty Party.

On Monday, Berlusconi accused Fini, a co-founder of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, of betraying him.

And he reached out to the Christian Democratic Union, which is allied with Fini, for support.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who has the authority to dissolve parliament, has said he opposes new elections because they would create instability at a time of economic crisis.

Last month, Fini accused Berlusconi of a lack of attention to the economic crisis and structural reforms that Italy needs.

Forbes magazine ranked Berlusconi last year as the world's 70th richest man, estimating his net worth at $6.5 billion. He amassed much of his wealth as a self-made media mogul, largely through the company Fininvest, and he also owns AC Milan, one of the world's most famous soccer teams.

He's been politically embattled before, having served twice as prime minister (1994-95 and 2001-06) before his election in 2008. Yet, especially in recent years, the 74-year-old has been dogged by scandal and legal troubles, in addition to his political challenges.

That includes a bitter divorce from Veronica Lario, his wife of 19 years, after allegations that a businessman hired escorts for the prime minister and that Berlusconi attended a birthday party for an 18-year-old girl.

Videos released this fall showed Berlusconi joking about the Holocaust and calling a female opposition politician "Pig God." The Vatican's official newspaper blasted the remarks, calling them "deplorable" and calling the jokes blasphemous, anti-Semitic and sexist.

Shortly thereafter in October, Italian prosecutors expanded their tax fraud investigation into Berlusconi's Mediaset company, the nation's largest commercial broadcaster. The prime minister has dismissed such fraud charges as politically motivated.

Beyond his personal travails, there are the stark political challenges. Foremost among them, Berlusconi faces a difficult economic picture as he looks ahead to the rest of his term, which expires in 2013 if he survives the confidence votes.

Italian unemployment is running at 8.5 percent, the highest level since 2003, according to the Italian statistical office, and public debt is 120 percent of the country's gross domestic product, the Bank of Italy says.