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Italian Politics: Berlusconi's nemesis

Will Silvio Berlusconi's former ally be the one to end his reign?

Berlusconi protests
A poster of Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hangs during a demonstration against Berlusconi's government politics in Rome on December 11, 2009. Berlusconi has been losing friends due to his political policies, including Gianfranco Fini from his People of Freedom party. (Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images)

ROME, Italy — Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister for seven of the last 10 years, constantly complains that "hidden powers" and a rigid Constitution, together with closet-Communists from the opposition Democratic Party, hinder his capacity to rule the Bel Paese, trampling the wide majority he received at the polls.

Now, it seems that for years he was looking for enemies in the wrong place. His real political nemesis, Gianfranco Fini, as it turned out, was right their in the midst of his own party.

On July 29, Berlusconi ousted Fini — the charismatic, current speaker of the Lower Chamber of the Italian parliament — from his People of Freedom party, accusing the party co-founder of being “totally incompatible” with its principles. He also contended that Fini was waging a shadow “political opposition” within his own party, trying to administer a “slow death” to it.

He had reason to be worried: 33 lawmakers from the lower house of parliament and 10 from the Senate abandoned the People of Freedom upon Fini's departure, leaving Berlusconi five votes short of a majority in the lower house and with a wafer-thin majority of two votes in the upper house.

Fini has pledged support for Berlusconi on an ad hoc basis, vowing to fight fiercely against proposals that are “unfair or damaging to the wider interest.”

That should prevent the prime minister from pushing through some of his more controversial ideas. He has already been forced to postpone until September the voting on a law which would curb wiretaps that has been criticized by magistrates and journalists alike.

The first "stress test" for this new arrangement came on Wednesday, as parliament voted on a no-confidence motion against Giacomo Caliendo, a junior justice minister under investigation for his alleged role in a secret organization plotting to fix political and judicial appointments. The motion failed after Fini's loyalists abstained in the vote, along with three small centrist parties. In doing so, they avoided direct confrontation with Berlusconi while still firing a warning shot at the government.

Fini seems an unlikely nemesis for Berlusconi. A 58-year-old chain smoker, he is the former head of the post-fascist party Italian Social Movement, born from the ashes of Mussolini's regime in 1946.

He led the Italian Socialist Movement onto a path of modernization, through the acceptance of democratic values and condemnation of anti-Semitism, and eventually re-branded it the National Alliance in 1995.

But all this probably wouldn't have landed him anywhere close to power without Berlusconi's support. It was Berlusconi the media mogul who shortly before entering politics in December 1993 endorsed Fini's run to become mayor of Rome. He failed — but barely, meaning that for the first time since World War II, a post-Fascist had been a credible contestant for an important political role.

In 1994, when Berlusconi became prime minister for the first time, Fini was a key ally and his party was awarded four cabinet posts.

Ever since, he had stood faithfully by Berlusconi's side, becoming deputy prime minister in 2001 and merging his own party with Berlusconi's Forza Italia to form the tycoon's latest political outfit, the People of Freedom, two years ago. He was rewarded with the prestigious role of speaker of the chamber.

How, then, did Fini end up becoming the only person apparently capable of ending Berlusconi's decade long stranglehold on Italian politics?

To those with a keen eye, telling signals have been there for a long time.