Late last week, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi ordered five ministers to resign from Italy’s government. They did, and as a result, current prime minister Enrico Letta’s coalition government is on the verge of collapse.

Mr Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right Forza Italia party, said the resignations were a response to the government’s decision on Friday to increase in sales tax from next month.

Mr Letta, prime minister, rejected Mr Berlusconi’s explanation as an “enormous lie”, and called the decision “mad and irresponsible and aimed exclusively at covering up his personal affairs” – a reference to Mr Berlusconi’s criminal conviction for tax fraud which is likely to lead to a ban on holding public office.

Beppe Grillo, the comic-activist leader of the movement, who has ruled out supporting a government led by the Democrats, on Saturday night called for snap elections. But his autocratic style of leadership and a purge of several parliamentarians who refused to toe Mr Grillo’s line have fuelled speculation that the Democrats might just be able to put the numbers together to form an alternative majority, including centrists led by former prime minister Mario Monti. Equally it is not clear whether all Mr Berlusconi’s MPs will remain loyal to their billionaire leader of the past two decades who turns 77 this weekend and is facing a year of house arrest or performing community service.

Mr Napolitano, who holds the constitutional power to dissolve parliament, has repeatedly expressed his opposition to holding snap elections. But if Mr Letta’s government were to fall and no alternative majority was in sight, then Italy could be faced with the unprecedented and extremely worrying prospect of staging elections before the end of the year at the risk of derailing the 2014 budget.

Rush For Votes is On

Today the rush for votes is on. Berlusconi, who has a long history of winning close votes may have overplayed his hand this time and Berlusconi faces party revolt over coalition collapse.

“Who is not with me is out,” declared a headline in Monday’s Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family, as the former prime minister arrived in Rome to ensure party unity ahead of a crucial senate vote expected late on Wednesday.

The numbers game has begun in earnest as Enrico Letta, centre-left prime minister, prepares to address both houses of parliament in a last-ditch effort to keep his government in office after Mr Berlusconi pulled his five ministers out of their five-month-old coalition at the weekend.

Mr Letta’s Democrats control the lower house but alone they are 54 votes short of an absolute majority in the senate following last February’s deadlocked elections. With the likely support of leftist allies, four recently appointed life senators and 20 centrists led by former prime minister Mario Monti, that deficit is reduced to a dozen or so.

Mr Letta is openly banking on wooing disaffected members of Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party after all five ministers perfunctorily ordered to resign by Mr Berlusconi publicly expressed their misgivings and then slammed Il Giornale for running a front-page editorial that came close to accusing them of betrayal.

Although few doubt Mr Berlusconi’s powers of persuasion and his tenacity, the prospect of their 77-year-old leader being banned from holding public office and serving one year under house arrest, or performing community service, has reinforced the sense that the centre-right is entering a post-Berlusconi era.

The nannycrats in Brussels do not want snap elections because it opens up all kinds of budget battles.

The vote is going to be close. And the closer it is, the more pressure president Napolitano will apply on a few holdouts to sway the election.

Italy 10-Year Bond Yield

Yield on the 10-year Italian bond spiked 24 basis points today to 4.66% but closed at 4.43%, up only 2 basis points (0.02 percentage points)

Perhaps this is a sign Letta has the votes. We will find out on Wednesday. 

Mike “Mish” Shedlock