ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his main coalition partner fell into a public shouting match on Thursday, inflaming simmering tensions that threaten the stability of Italy’s conservative government.
In a rare open debate among the top rungs of Berlusconi’s Party of Freedom (PDL), right-wing leader Gianfranco Fini, a co-founder of the party in 2009, leveled a raft of criticism at the style and substance of Berlusconi’s leadership.
The unprecedented public clash at a party congress seems sure to undermine government cohesion and stability as the euro zone’s third largest economy struggles to recover from its worst post-war recession.
Fini, former leader of the conservative National Alliance and now speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, accused the 73-year-old media mogul of stifling internal party debate and giving too much power to the pro-autonomy Northern League.
“I don’t like the house that I helped to create,” said Fini, who is considered a possible successor to Berlusconi.
To a mixture of applause and heckling from the audience of ministers and parliamentarians, Fini attacked the government’s tough line on immigration and said plans to devolve powers to the regions had not been properly thought out or discussed.
As an irate Berlusconi tried to interrupt him on several occasions, Fini said the center-right’s strong showing at recent regional elections was largely due to the League, while the PDL was hemorrhaging votes in the rich north.
No sooner had Fini taken his seat than Berlusconi, who had already addressed the hall, got back up and laid into his 58-year-old rival, rebutting his criticisms one by one and saying he had never raised them in proper party gatherings.
He ended his address by telling Fini that if he wanted to participate in party debate in future, he should resign from his “above-the-fray” role as Chamber speaker.
In a visually striking riposte, Fini stood up and stepped toward the stage where Berlusconi was speaking, pointing his finger and shouting: “What are you saying? What are you saying? ... Are you going to kick me out?”
Fini later said he would not step down as Chamber speaker and his supporters said he would also not be leaving the PDL.
Center-left opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani called the clash “an ugly spectacle” that revealed deep policy divisions.
“We won’t have any reforms of any sort as long as this government is in office,” he told reporters.
Tensions between Berlusconi and Fini have been growing since gains by the Northern League in last month’s regional vote shifted the balance of power in the ruling coalition.
The anti-immigrant League, emboldened from winning its two first regional governorships in the affluent north, wants to spearhead the constitutional reforms that are the focus of Berlusconi’s remaining three years in office.
Around 50 lawmakers supporting Fini signed a document this week denying talk of an imminent break-up from the PDL that some say could lead to early elections.
Berlusconi has so far played hardball with Fini, but he can hardly afford a defection that could cost his bloc its comfortable majority in both houses of parliament.
Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Charles Dick and Mark Heinrich