ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s popularity rating hit new lows, an opinion poll showed on Thursday, ahead of a confidence vote on his government’s austerity budget.
Divisions within his coalition government, corruption allegations and criticism of the budget have combined to weaken his government and send the usually popular Berlusconi’s approval ratings spiraling downward, the poll showed.
Berlusconi said his decision to put the 25-billion-euro austerity budget to confidence votes in both houses of parliament was “an act of courage” because he would have to resign if he loses.
The budget, which critics say bleeds workers and spares the rich, includes drastic cuts to municipalities and regions.
It has been a magnet for opposition protests and has divided the center-right as it seeks to cut the deficit to 3.9 percent of GDP next year from the targeted 5.0 percent this year.
“The decision to call the confidence vote on the budget has been an act of courage. If we don’t win, we go home,” Berlusconi said in a television interview on Thursday.
Berlusconi will have to step down, as required by the constitution, if he loses the confidence votes, the first of which is expected next week in the upper house Senate.
Coalition lawmakers have presented some 1,250 amendments to make the cuts more palatable to local voters but the government has for the most part refused to make substantial changes, saying the budget is necessary to avoid a Greek-style crisis.
A poll in Italy’s leading Corriere della Sera newspaper on Thursday showed Berlusconi’s approval rating falling to 41 percent from 50 percent about six weeks ago.
The survey by the ISPO research group showed 57 percent of those asked had a negative opinion of Berlusconi’s ability to govern, up from 48 percent in the last week of May.
It brought Berlusconi’s popularity to the same low level shown by polls for left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper. Berlusconi says his internal polls show an approval rating of 63 percent.
The ISPO poll showed the 73-year-old media magnate’s popularity was suffering from erosion even among traditional supporters of the center-right. In that category, it fell by seven points over six weeks.
In the past weeks, Berlusconi has been assailed on several fronts by problems that have made his government more vulnerable than it has been since it took office in 2008.
The latest poll said the fall in popularity was partly due to the saga of Aldo Brancher, a Berlusconi friend on trial over accusations of embezzlement and who Berlusconi appointed in June to be “minister for federalism.”
One of Brancher’s first acts as minister was to take advantage of a law giving ministers the right not to attend trials where they are defendants. The move raised suspicions that that was behind the appointment in the first place.
Brancher resigned on Monday, 16 days after he was sworn in.
Berlusconi’s popularity is also under strain over a law limiting the use of wiretaps by police that he wants to push through but is contested by magistrates and journalists.
Berlusconi says the rules are needed to protect privacy. The opposition says his real aim is to stop more leaks of judicial wiretaps that have got him and some ministers into trouble.
Interior Minister Claudio Scajola, a Berlusconi ally, resigned in May after it was found that a constructor arrested in a corruption probe helped pay for a luxury apartment in Rome. The allegations against Scajola surfaced from wiretaps.
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Janet Lawrence