Berlusconi strikes vital Italy election deal with League

By Barry Moody, Reuters

ROME–Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday announced an alliance with the devolutionist Northern League which could prevent the center-left forming a stable government after elections next month.

Berlusconi has been striving for weeks to seal the deal with his estranged former allies to strengthen the center-right bloc, under a strategy to stymie the center-left government which is expected to emerge from a Feb. 24-25 election. The League had previously refused a pact because of rank-and-file opposition to the scandal-plagued Berlusconi being candidate for prime minister. The media magnate was driven from office a year ago at the height of Italy’s economic crisis after he was charged with having sex with an underage prostitute.

In an interview on Italian radio station RTL, Berlusconi left the issue of the premiership open in a future center-right government. He said he would prefer to be the economy minister and that mostly likely Angelino Alfano, secretary of his People of Freedom (PDL) party, would be prime minister.

However he said he would remain head of the PDL and the coalition. “It will be the head of the coalition who would indicate who will be the prime ministerial candidate if we win,” said Berlusconi who had previously insisted he himself would be the candidate.

Berlusconi said he had struck the deal early on Monday with Roberto Maroni, leader of the League — which was part of his previous coalition government.

The center-left led by Pier Luigi Bersani has been ahead in opinion polls for months. The latest survey, published on Sunday, said it would win between 38 and 39 percent.

A PDL-League alliance could pull in about 28 percent of the vote with a centrist alliance under outgoing premier Mario Monti on 14-15 percent, the poll showed.

Under Italy’s much-criticized electoral law, Bersani is expected to win a comfortable majority in the lower house.

But in the Senate the distribution of seats is decided on a regional basis and the populous northern regions led by Lombardy return more senators.

By allying with the League in its northern strongholds, Berlusconi hopes to be able to stymie a center-left government in parliament.

The League wants strict controls on immigration and favors giving more power and autonomy to Italy’s 20 regions. It wants more tax revenue to go directly to the regions, saying the rich north is picking up the tab for a south it brands as corrupt and economically backward.

Berlusconi said that under the deal the PDL would support Maroni as candidate for president of Lombardy in regional elections.