Silvio Berlusconi’s government appears to be in danger of collapse after open warfare broke out between the Italian prime minister and his most senior party colleague.
The dispute with Gianfranco Fini, the co-founder of the governing People of Freedom party, follows a string of corruption and sex scandals.
The resulting crisis has prompted speculation that Italy’s government will not survive its full term.
Berlusconi is playing down the rift with Fini.
“I kept absolute silence,” he said. “It is not a conflict between two persons… there’s simply been declarations (positions) from one side towards the other.”
Fini – who is also the speaker of the lower house -has enraged the prime minister in recent months by calling for greater “morality” in government, complaining of Berlusconi’s dictatorial style of government.
Berlusconi’s approval ratings have been in freefall over an unpopular 25 billion euro austerity package and his controversial attempt to curtail the police’s use of wire tapping.
Fini’s defection or his expulsion could force new elections.
Berlusconi is insisting the government is not at risk and says he is confident of the support of the majority of Italians.