Berlusconi's Coalition Faces Collapse

Italy's government is again on the brink of collapse. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has survived sex scandals and corruption allegations for years, but now he faces an imminent threat from within his own ruling coalition. The leader's two strongest allies, Gianfranco Fini and Umberto Bossi, are in a power struggle and even they say the row will end the Berlusconi era.

The internal feud became public drama last week during a live television program. Fini, who has always been loyal to Berlusconi and who cofounded the ruling House of Freedom political party with him, made a surprise announcement when he criticized the P.M.'s leadership and announced he would form a new political party, with an eye on the premiership. An irate Berlusconi responded by chiding Fini for exposing the party to "public mockery." The event devolved into a wild yelling match.

The recent schism has left Italy's future up for grabs. The leftist opposition has no clear leader, so even if early elections are called, the race will be fought out within the conservative right. Berlusconi has said he won't run for another term, and he can't survive this crisis without the unified support of his allies--not a likely option. It's unlikely that Bossi, who is in poor health, could run a successful race for the premiership, and he lacks a viable second-in-command. Fini is the obvious next leader of Italy. He has international respect and is a serious statesman--indeed, he has always been pegged to replace Berlusconi. But it was meant to be a graceful handover when Berlusconi felt ready to leave. Instead, it looks like Fini's ready to pull out the rug.