ROME (AP) — Many of former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's fellow lawmakers have begun deserting him in his bid to bring down the government as fallout over his tax-fraud conviction — a rare rebuke to his authority that could save the fragile ruling coalition and its efforts to revive the country's economy.
The unusual defiance of Berlusconi could signal that the three-time former premier's influence is seriously eroding in Italy, especially in the wake of his conviction and four-year prison sentence, which threaten his seat in the Senate. But the 77-year-old billionaire media mogul has withstood numerous political setbacks in the past, only to re-emerge strong.
Carlo Giovanardi, a Berlusconi stalwart, said Tuesday that he and many other center-right lawmakers will vote to keep Premier Enrico Letta's five-month-old government afloat. Those votes would boost Letta's chances of winning a legislative confidence vote on Wednesday that could be pegged to the government's survival.
"We have the numbers — there are more than 40 of us," Giovanardi told reporters. "We are resolute in wanting to maintain the government's equilibrium and that's why we will vote yes" in the confidence vote.
The pressure on Berlusconi to abandon his spoiler strategy grew as the day went on, especially after his political heir and former justice minister, Angelino Alfano, openly defied him.
"I remain firmly convinced that all of our party tomorrow must give Letta the confidence vote," Alfano was quoted in Italian news reports as saying, adding that Berlusconi's Freedom People party should avoid a schism.
Alfano had been serving as interior minister in Letta's government until last week. That was when Berlusconi, unhappy that center-left lawmakers were going to vote Friday in a Senate committee to strip him of his Senate seat because of his conviction, demanded his five Cabinet ministers resign.
The resignations of the ministers convinced Letta that he needed to seek renewed backing in Parliament, setting up Wednesday's showdown.
Some Berlusconi die-hards said they would vote in favor of Letta only if their leader allowed it. Late Tuesday, Berlusconi was reportedly huddling in his palazzo residence in downtown Rome to map out his next move.
"At this point, even though I'm convinced that the best thing is to bring down this government, I will vote in favor of the confidence vote only if Silvio Berlusconi asks me to — nothing else," Sandro Bondi, a top Freedom People party official, said in a statement rebutting Alfano.
Letta stayed silent, preparing the speech he will deliver Wednesday morning to the Senate, where his own center-left Democratic Party depends on support from Berlusconi's center-right party — the lynchpin partner in the governing coalition. Later, Letta will bring his case to the lower Chamber of Deputies, where the Democrats have a comfortable majority.
The premier has stopped short of saying he will stake his government's future on a confidence vote. If he chooses to do so, and loses, early elections could be the result, further distracting the country from efforts to shake off a recession. Letta could also ask for confidence votes not pegged to the government per se but to specific policies.
Letta's minister for parliamentary relations, Dario Franceschini, said the government would act "so that every choice is made in Parliament, in the light of the day, without ambiguity and hypocrisy and without negotiations."
Tensions in Letta's coalition have been high since Aug. 1, when Italy's top criminal court upheld lower courts' conviction of Berlusconi and his four-year prison sentence for tax fraud. A 2012 law says anyone receiving sentences longer than two years cannot hold public office for six years. Berlusconi — who will in reality serve just a year due to efforts to reduce prison crowding — insists he is innocent.