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Opposition swings behind Italy govt, backs extra COVID spending

* Parliament approves 8-billion-euro stimulus package

* Berlusconi plays key role in opposition backing

* Vote comes after govt favours Mediaset in Vivendi dispute

ROME, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Italian opposition parties on Thursday unexpectedly backed a government request to raise more money to cover additional measures aimed at protecting the economy from the ravages of the coronavirus.

The support meant the authorisation needed to borrow a further 8 billion euros ($9.5 billion) flew through both houses of parliament to the relief of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

“The vote ... is a very good sign at this particularly difficult time for the country,” Conte said in a statement. “A constructive approach has prevailed among the opposition.”

Italy was the first Western country to be hit by the coronavirus and is struggling to contain a fierce second wave, which has pushed up the overall death toll to 52,850 -- the second highest in Europe after Britain.

The opposition was corralled by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, head of Forza Italia, who forced his partners in the far-right League and Brothers of Italy parties to fall into line to prevent their alliance from publicly cracking.

Berlusconi said he was backing the request out of a “deep sense of responsibility” to the nation.

The vote came just a day after parliament approved a government bill that will help broadcaster Mediaset - controlled by Berlusconi’s family - in its long-standing legal dispute with French media giant Vivendi.

The League and Brothers of Italy have both fiercely criticized the government’s handling of the health emergency, saying self-employed workers and small businesses have not received enough aid to survive.

After a meeting with Berlusconi earlier this week they thought that they had an agreement to abstain in Thursday’s votes, but the Forza Italia leader subsequently shifted his position, saying the government had accepted the right’s request to earmark more funds for the self-employed.

To avoid a potentially embarrassing split, League leader Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, head of Brothers of Italy, ordered their lawmakers to follow suit.

“We are ready to vote yes, after the government informally accepted our proposals,” Salvini and Meloni said in a joint statement.

Earlier this month Italian newspapers reported that Berlusconi was considering splitting from his allies and offering Conte more permanent parliamentary support. He has denied this.

Reporting by Angelo Amante and Giuseppe Fonte

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