By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's center-left Democratic Party agreed on Thursday to back its center-right coalition partner's interior minister in a no confidence vote, heading off a potential crisis for Prime Minister Enrico Letta's fragile government.
Party secretary Gugliemo Epifani said PD lawmakers would vote against the motion called by opposition parties demanding minister Angelino Alfano resign over the rushed deportation of the family of a dissident Kazakh oligarch in May.
"Tomorrow we will vote 'No' to the no-confidence motion with a declaration explaining our position," Epifani told reporters after a party meeting before Friday's vote.
The decision eased fears of a split in the PD after a group of center-left senators pushed for the party to join the opposition in voting against Alfano, despite warnings from the centerright that the government, which also includes a small centrist party, would fall if he was forced out.
The vote is expected in the early afternoon after a debate in the Senate in which Letta is expected to speak in defense of Alfano, the secretary of the center-right People of Freedom party (PDL), who holds the title of deputy prime minister.
Earlier, President Giorgio Napolitano warned against endangering the government, which is facing its most serious threat since being formed three months ago in the wake of deadlocked national elections.
Explicitly mentioning the legal problems of former premier and PDL leader Silvio Berlusconi, who faces a key verdict at the end of July, and the uproar over the deportation of the wife and daughter of dissident Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, Napolitano said the effects of a government collapse would be severe.
"The damaging effects on our international relations and on financial markets would be seen immediately and could be impossible to recover from," he said in a speech to a journalists' association.
Friday's vote may help Letta draw a line under the Kazakh scandal, which has proved a growing distraction to his government as accusations against Alfano have mounted and his chief of staff has resigned over the affair.
The unusual speed of the deportation of Alma Shalabayeva and hercriticizedold daughter Auna raised speculation that it was done as a favor to energy-rich state of Kazakhstan, which has frequently been criticized for its human rights record.
"The circumstances of the deportation give rise to the appearance that this was in fact an extraordinary rendition which is of great concern to us," the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crepeau said in a joint statement with two other U.N. human rights experts.
Alfano told parliament this week that he had not been informed of the operation in which 50 police officers raided Ablyazov's villa in the suburbs of Rome and detained his wife and daughter, who were deported two days later.
The government has rescinded the deportation order, although the family is now in Kazakhstan, and ordered a shake-up of the various public offices involved after acknowledging serious failures in the way the case was handled.
Napolitano made no direct comment on the no-confidence vote but was severely critical of the way the case had been handled by officials, and of the role of the Kazakh authorities in pressuring Italian authorities into the deportation.
The strength of the combined government majority in parliament should ensure Alfano survives the vote but the case has cast a harsh light on the tensions within the government that have stood in the way of effective economic reforms.
After the Alfano confidence vote, Letta's administration is also awaiting the outcome of the July 30 verdict in which Italy's top appeals court will decide on Berlusconi's final appeal against a conviction for tax fraud.
The 76-year-old billionaire faces a four year prison sentence, although he would probably not serve any jail time due to his age, as well as a five year ban on holding public office which would see him barred from his seat in the Senate.
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Stephanie Nebehay-Ulmer in Geneva; Editing by Alison Williams)