Italian political crisis deepens

For Silvio Berlusconi, the question no longer seems if he will be forced from power — but when.

The Italian leader who has survived prostitution scandals and corruption investigations faces no-confidence votes in coming weeks that he appears to have little — if any — chance of surviving.

On Monday, four members of the government quit, increasing the premier's isolation at a time when the man who once was his closest ally is now calling for his head.

"There's no doubt that the government will not last," said political analyst James Walston of the American University of Rome. "There is some doubt as to exactly when it will finish."

Berlusconi, 74, has been locked in a bitter battle with former ally Gianfranco Fini, who has the numbers to bring the government down. Fini had recently urged Berlusconi to resign, and on Monday carried out his threat to pull men loyal to him from the government.

A minister, a deputy minister and two undersecretaries who formed Fini's delegation in the government stepped down en masse.

"The resignations are irrevocable," outgoing Deputy Minister Adolfo Urso said. "We want to end a political phase and ... open a new one."

While the resignations do not sink the government, they escalate the battle with Fini, a younger, charismatic right-wing leader, and further weaken the premier.

"It's not just a majority or a government that's coming to an end: It's the adventure of a lonely man," said Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera. "Berlusconi's loneliness is what today strikes the most."

The confidence votes are expected to be held after lawmakers pass the budget, likely by mid-December. In the ever-shifting Italian political landscape, many politicians are already plotting their next moves. Fini is creating a new party, and is looking to form a coalition with other small parties in hopes of draw moderate, center-right voters away from Berlusconi.

Berlusconi still has a majority, if a slim one, in the Senate. But it's in the lower house that he risks more, as his coalition does not have a majority without Fini's votes.

Fini, originally the co-founder with Berlusconi of the People of Freedom party, had a spectacular fallout with the premier last summer. The 58-year-old former neo-Fascist was effectively expelled from the party, and created a breakaway parliamentary group.

Fini, who also serves as speaker of the lower house, has repeatedly said he considers the current government to be effectively over.

If Berlusconi loses the confidence vote, even in just one house, he has to resign, opening up the possibility of early elections — likely next spring, two years ahead of schedule.

But before dissolving parliament and calling an election, the president can ask Berlusconi to form a new government or even tap a new prime minister to lead a new government with a revised center-right coalition.

Berlusconi, however, has rejected the possibility of a government led by another politician from his own coalition, maintaining that this would betray the will of voters, who in 2008 voted him into power.

Defiant in the face of his declining popularity, Berlusconi insists that if his government falls, the only alternative is an early election. He says he would win it again, as part of a coalition with current government partner the Northern League.

"Don't read the newspapers," Berlusconi told supporters in Milan this weekend. "Sixty percent of (voters) are with me."

However, a poll conducted last week for state-run RAI television by the Ipso polling firm showed that if an election were held now, Berlusconi and the Northern League would only garner about 40 percent of the vote.

While Berlusconi can never be written off, and the appeal of his rivals before voters remains to be seen, the premier's image has been damaged by a spate of scandals in the last two years.

In the most recent one, he has come under scrutiny over his ties to a then 17-year-old Moroccan girl, nicknamed Ruby Rubacuori (or "Ruby the Heart-Stealer") and alleged encounters with a prostitute. His rivals have attacked his unrepentantly lavish lifestyle, saying a public figure should set an example and insisting he was failing to attend to the country's economic troubles.

Still, the appeal of Berlusconi's rivals with voters is untested.

"The government will be brought down, there will be elections," said Walston. "But there is considerable doubt whether this is the end of Berlusconi."