By Barry Moody
ROME (Reuters) - Relations between the partners in Italy's coalition government seemed close to breaking point on Thursday over whether to evict Silvio Berlusconi from parliament over a tax fraud conviction.
A row is raging between Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party and the center-left Democratic Party (PD) of Prime Minister Enrico Letta following the 76-year-old media mogul's conviction by the supreme court early this month.
PDL sources said party secretary Angelino Alfano told Letta in a tense meeting on Wednesday night that the party would bring down the government if the PD voted in the Senate next month to throw Berlusconi out of parliament, something the center-left party has repeatedly said it will do.
Alfano said on Thursday he was very worried about the PD taking such a clear line before even hearing arguments in a Senate committee which begins meeting on September 9.
"We very clearly ask that the PD thinks about this, abandoning 20 years of hostility, and reflects on the wisdom of voting to remove Berlusconi," he said.
The PDL cites some legal experts as saying the anti-corruption law, under which Berlusconi would be expelled from parliament and prevented from standing as a political candidate, cannot be applied in this case.
But PD secretary Guglielmo Epifani said they wouldn't change their minds and the country could not afford a government crisis just as it starts to see the first tentative signs of recovery from its worst postwar recession.
Many PD members are up in arms over even sharing in a coalition with Berlusconi's party and any attempt to save their sworn enemy could break apart the already fractious center left.
"For us the compass is the interests of the country which come before our interests and even more so ahead of the interests of a single person," Epifani said.
Letta says the government must forge ahead to encourage economic recovery and Berlusconi's judicial problems are not an issue for his administration. "I will not accept blackmail and neither are ultimatums acceptable," he said on Wednesday night.
Berlusconi is desperately trying to find a way to stay in the political game despite a four-year jail sentence, commuted to one year, for a massive tax fraud at his Mediaset broadcasting empire. He is expected to start serving the sentence, either under house arrest or doing social work, in mid-October.
Berlusconi, who has been holed up in his luxury villa near Milan since the verdict, has ordered his lieutenants to pile on the pressure in the hope of forcing the PD to at least delay any Senate judgment. His aides have unsuccessfully lobbied President Giorgio Napolitano for a pardon.
In an advance excerpts from a magazine interview published on the Internet on Thursday, Berlusconi said it would be the PD's fault if the government collapsed. "If two friends are in a boat and one throws the other overboard, whose fault is it if the boat sinks?" he told Tempi magazine.
"They cannot strip me of the right to speak on the political scene, they cannot strip me of the right to inspire and lead the political movement I founded, and they cannot take away my right to be the point of reference for millions of Italians," he said.
He added that he was sure his oldest daughter Marina, 47 and head of his $6.6 billion business empire, would not take his place at the head of the center right as has been suggested.
Despite the brinkmanship, analysts and doves in Berlusconi's party have warned that torpedoing the government could misfire, with the danger that Letta could form a new coalition with the help of PDL rebels and members of the populist 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo.
Even if Italy went to early elections, Berlusconi would not be able to use his formidable campaigning power to the full and Letta has warned that Italians will punish anyone who causes a crisis at such a sensitive economic moment, only months after the government was formed.
(Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci and Catherine Hornby; editing by Philip Pullella and Raissa Kasolowsky)