ROME (Reuters) - The head of Italy’s Northern League, a key ally of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, on Friday predicted the government would fall and the ruling coalition collapse as its leaders publicly attack each other.
Umberto Bossi, whose anti-immigrant party made strong gains in a March regional ballot and has raised its profile in the coalition, backed Berlusconi in his battle with right-wing leader Gianfranco Fini, but said the center-right alliance was now doomed.
In an interview in the League’s party newspaper, Bossi predicted “a vertical collapse of the government and probably the end of the alliance between (Berlusconi’s) PDL and the Northern League,” although he gave no timeframe.
The coalition’s descent into chaos comes as the euro zone’s third-largest economy struggles to recover from its worst post-war recession.
In a dramatic public shouting match at a PDL congress on Thursday, Fini accused Berlusconi of stifling internal debate and giving too much power to the League, while the 73-year-old prime minister accused his younger rival of disloyalty.
Bossi said Fini, a co-founder of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL) whose powerbase is in the south, was “envious and rancorous over (the League’s) repeated successes ... and has done nothing but try to erode what we have created.”
The unprecedented clash left the center-right government in disarray even before Bossi’s comments, as a defection by Fini could paralyze the executive and even deprive Berlusconi of his comfortable majority in both houses of parliament — raising the specter of early elections.
Bossi, who is renowned for his colorful language, said it was now clear the ruling coalition could not produce the promised reform to devolve power to the regions that the League demands.
“A new road awaits us, we will be alone without Berlusconi,” said the League chief, who sank Berlusconi’s first government in 1994.
Analysts said there may be more to Bossi’s threats than his usual bellicose rhetoric.
The Northern League has gone from strength to strength since Berlusconi returned to power in 2008, and may prefer the option of early polls rather than be stuck in a weak government unable to deliver on the reforms it has promised its voters.
“Bossi’s position has strengthened. He can now blame Berlusconi for not getting the PDL house in order and pull the plug on the government without making it look as if it’s his own fault,” said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome.
Berlusconi held a meeting with Bossi and PDL loyalists on Friday, but did not answer reporters’ questions on the political situation.
Most commentators in Italian newspapers said the virulence of Thursday’s clash between Fini and the prime minister meant they were unlikely to patch up.
“It’s all-out war,” was the banner headline in left-leaning La Repubblica daily.
“The most logical forecast is that, by living separately under the same roof, they won’t go very far, and soon enough they will be counting their respective supporters in an early election,” said an editorial in La Stampa.
Additional reporting by Gavin Jones and Ilaria Polleschi; editing by Andrew Roche