* Fury over interior minister's presence at Berlusconi rally
* Letta says not prepared to carry on at any cost
* Row overshadows bonding session at Tuscan retreat
By Silvia Ognibene
SARTEANO, Italy, May 12 Italian Prime Minister
Enrico Letta warned his centre-right coalition partners on
Sunday that the future of the government was at risk following a
furious row over Silvio Berlusconi's attacks on magistrates in a
rally at the weekend.
Simmering tensions between the partners in Letta's uneasy
coalition between traditional rivals on the right and left broke
out into the open after the rally in the northern city of
Brescia attended by ministers from Berlusconi's People of
Freedom (PDL) party.
Berlusconi accused magistrates of trying to eliminate him
politically, after his appeal against a four-year jail sentence
for tax fraud was rejected last week.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, the PDL party secretary,
was present at the demonstration, drawing accusations from
members of Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) that he was
endorsing the attack on the magistracy.
"Occasions like Brescia are unacceptable and they cannot be
repeated because the negative effects are greater than the
government's ability to hold together," Letta's spokesman
Gianmarco Trevisi told reporters late on Sunday.
"Letta repeated that he was not prepared to keep the
government going at any cost," he said, following a special
meeting of the cabinet in a former abbey in Tuscany.
The two-day bonding session near the town of Sarteano was
billed by Letta's office as a chance to discuss some of the
thorniest policy issues facing the government, formed after two
months of wrangling in the wake of February's inconclusive
As well as major reforms to the dysfunctional electoral and
parliamentary system, the cabinet must also find a way to
reconcile differences over billions of euros worth of tax cuts
promised by the centre-right but resisted by the left.
Sources close to the government said Letta and Alfano argued
angrily during their trip from Rome to the conference centre set
in idyllic rolling woodland near Siena where the meeting is due
to run until Monday afternoon.
The fractious atmosphere has increased the problems facing
Letta and raised doubts over the durability of his government,
despite assurances from Berlusconi on Saturday that he does not
intend to withdraw support.
In a bid to calm the tension, the coalition partners agreed
that ministers would henceforth not take part in electoral
rallies or television talk shows not connected with their
But officials, who said Letta had told his ministers to
concentrate on governing and avoid political conflict, made
little attempt to conceal the tense climate in the meeting.
"The PDL is not going to lower its flags and hide its
identity and I'm sure that's true for the PD as well," said
Alfano's spokeswoman Danila Subranni. "It will remain by
Berlusconi's side, that's not up for discussion."
Behind the barbs, the coalition faces wide differences over
tax policy which must be resolved if Italy is to remain within
the limits imposed by European Union budget rules.
Letta has pledged to focus on cutting youth unemployment of
nearly 40 percent and restore growth to the sinking economy but
he has little room for new spending given the huge burden of
public debt, now around 130 percent of Italy's economic output.
However Berlusconi's legal woes are likely to continue to
overshadow the government, with a hearing in his trial on
charges of paying for sex with a minor set for Monday.
In a sign of the growing stakes, the 76-year old media
tycoon's own Canale 5 television station broadcast a special
programme on Sunday night on the notorious "bunga bunga"
evenings at his palatial villa outside Milan which were the
scene of the alleged offences.
Both Berlusconi and Karima El Mahroug, the former teenaged
nightclub dancer known as "Ruby the Heartstealer", denied ever
having sex while an array of witnesses said the evenings were no
more than convivial dinners where the former prime minister
would entertain guests by singing and telling stories.
Opinion polls continue to show the centre-right holds a
lead, with a survey by the ISPO institute in the Corriere della
Sera showing Berlusconi's alliance on 35.6 percent ahead of the
combined centre-left on 29.6 percent and the anti-establishment
5-Star Movement on 24.1 percent.