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Italy's PM to see if shaky coalition can survive

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FRANCES D'EMILIO | September 27, 2013 06:40 PM EST | AP

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ROME — Italian Premier Enrico Letta warned he will quit unless he receives prompt pledges of solid support in a confidence vote in Parliament on his government, which risks collapses from escalating tension over ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction, a minister said after a Cabinet meeting Friday night.

Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom Party partners with Letta's center-left Democratic Party in an unusual alliance of rival forces.

Letta summoned the Cabinet to determine if the media mogul's lawmakers still back the five-month-old government, which is struggling to pull Italy out of a stubborn recession. Nearly all of Berlusconi's senators have vowed to quit if a Senate committee votes next week to strip him of his seat because of the conviction, which was upheld Aug. 1 by Italy's top court.

`'I am unwilling to go on without this step of clarification" of support, Letta told the Cabinet, according to a statement from the premier's office. `'Effective government action is clearly incompatible with mass resignations of a Parliamentary group which should be supporting this very government."

`'Either (the government) is re-launched, and the country and the interests of the citizens come first, or we pull the plug" on the government, Letta was quoted as saying.

Government paralysis over Berlusconi's political fate could be costly. The Cabinet had been expected to find alternate revenues so it can avoid raising the sales tax amid the sagging economy. Instead, the whole session was dedicated to how the government might survive, and no economic measures were approved.

Regional Affairs Minister Graziano Delrio told reporters after leaving the 2 1/2 hour Cabinet meeting that Letta will put his government to a confidence vote in Parliament after laying out his policies in a speech. If Letta loses the vote, he would have to resign. If a new government cannot be formed, perhaps with other partners, early elections could be called.

No date was set for the confidence vote.

Italians voted in February in parliamentary elections, whose inconclusive results led to weeks of political haggling. Letta's forces and Berlusconi's forces forged a tense coalition, which has failed to jump-start the economy amid near-constant bickering.

Letta told his Cabinet he won't tolerate `'threats and ultimatums." He said it was `'unacceptable" that on Wednesday, while he was in New York representing Italy at the U.N. General Assembly, the pro-Berlusconi senators vowed to quit en masse.

Berlusconi's conviction carried a four-year prison sentence, although because of his age -- he turns 77 on Sunday -- and a law that shaves three years off sentences to ease jail overcrowding, the media mogul will only have to serve one year, and he can opt to do so under house confinement or by performing some social service.

A 2012 law says anyone convicted to more than two years in prison is ineligible to hold or run for office for six years.

Berlusconi and his lawyers say the law shouldn't be applied to crimes before its passage, and contend he is the innocent victim of magistrates purportedly siding with the left.