MILAN -- Italy's fragile coalition government was pushed into a full-fledged crisis Saturday after five ministers from former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's political party announced their resignations.
The move drew the ire of Premier Enrico Letta, who accused Berlusconi of a "crazy" gesture aimed at covering up his personal affairs.
The five-month-old government has teetered for weeks since the high court confirmed Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction.
Berlusconi's center-right People of Liberty Party is in an unusual coalition of rival forces with Letta's center-left Democratic Party, and the resignations signals the end of the alliance.
The resignations must be formally submitted to President Giorgio Napolitano, who must decide if there is any way to continue the government or if new elections must be held.
The announcement by the center-right ministers came after Berlusconi urged ministers in his party to step down if the government doesn't revoke an increase to Italy's value-added tax that takes effect next week.
Tensions already were swirling around a Senate committee vote next week on whether to revoke Berlusconi's legislative seat because of the tax fraud conviction.
Letta, in a statement issued by his office, said Berlusconi was using the sales tax increase as an alibi "to justify the crazy and irresponsible gesture, all aimed only to cover up his personal affairs."
Letta said it was Berlusconi who was forcing the government's hand on the sales tax by depriving it of the stability needed to push through alternative measures.
"The Italian people will know to return to the sender such a big lie and attempt to distort reality," Letta said.
Democratic Party leader Guglielmo Epifani called the center-right ministers' move "irresponsible."
"They are provoking a crisis and we must evaluate exactly what the consequences are," he said.
Letta had warned on Friday that he will quit unless he receives prompt pledges of solid support in a confidence vote in Parliament on his government, which is struggling to pull Italy out of a recession.
Nearly all of Berlusconi's senators have vowed to quit, if a Senate committee votes next week to strip him of his Senate seat because of the conviction.
Earlier on HuffPost:
On Wednesday, June 26, the third civil chamber of the Supreme Court will examine the appeal of a higher court sentence, in which Berlusconi was ordered to pay more than 560 million euros to the CIR, an Italian holding company, for the Lodo Mondadori scandal. <em>In this Oct. 6, 2005 file photo, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi touches his face during a press conference in Rome. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito , File)</em>
On Thursday, June 27, the leader of the People of Freedom Party will face a preliminary hearing in Naples. On May 9 of last year, the prosecutor asked for Berlusconi’s trial on charges of corruption for having paid three million euros in cash to Sergio de Gregorio, the then-elected senator from the IDV party, in order to pass him through the ranks of the center-right. The move would make the already difficult life of the Prodi government even more precarious. In addition to Berlusconi, an indictment was also sought for De Gregorio and the former editor of the Avanti newspaper, Walter Lavitola. <em>In this file photo taken on Sept. 27, 2009, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he attends a meeting in Milan, Italy. (AP Photo/Alberto Pellaschiar)</em>
In March 2012, the Fourth Criminal Court of Milan found Berlusconi and his brother Paolo guilty of involvement in the release of classified information at the time of the Unipol takeover of BNL. Once the court has filed a new opinion, the former premier’s lawyers will have 45 days to lodge an appeal. On appeal, however, the crime will already be time-barred. <em>In this file photo taken on Sept. 9, 2011, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi grimaces during a People of Freedom party meeting in Rome. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)</em>
Civil Lawsuit for Separation from Veronica Lario
Another court date in Milan. Berlusconi can expect a judgement by the appeals court in his suit for separation from Veronica Lario. In December, the court sentenced Berlusconi to pay 3 million euros per month in alimony to his former wife. The appeals court dismissed the former prime minister's request to urgently suspend provisional enforcement of the judgment, but granted Berlusconi a small discount: He will have to calculate the amount in arrears starting from September, instead of May, 2010. <em>In this Friday, May 11, 2012 file photo, Italian former premier Silvio Berlusconi grimaces as he attends the funeral service of Italian entrepreneur Giampiero Cantoni in Milan. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)</em>
In May 2012, the Second Court of Appeal in Milan confirmed Berlusconi's 4-year-long prison sentence on charges of tax fraud, although three of the years have been pardoned. Berlusconi is accused of tax fraud in the sale of Mediaset TV rights. The judges also confirmed a judgment of the lower court, which had sentenced the PDL leader to a 5-year ban from holding public office. An appeal has already been filed in the Supreme Court. <em>Silvio Berlusconi speaks at a rally in Brescia, Italy, Saturday, May 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)</em>