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Berlusconi makes plea ahead of vote

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has pleaded with MPs for his political life on the eve of crucial confidence votes.

He urged them to support him, warning that bringing down his government would be "folly" because stability was essential as the country battled an economic crisis.

Mr Berlusconi appealed to rebels who have vowed to try to oust him during Wednesday's votes. He offered to negotiate a new agenda that would allow the government to survive until new parliamentary elections are held in 2013, as well as a cabinet reshuffle to give government positions to those who support him in the crucial parliamentary test.

"The last thing Italy needs is a political crisis," Mr Berlusconi argued in a 30-minute speech to the Senate.

He faces votes in both houses of parliament after a dramatic falling-out with his one-time closest ally, Gianfranco Fini, his party's co-founder.

Mr Berlusconi, 74, was once immensely popular, but his approval ratings have nose-dived and his political capital diluted amid scandals engulfing his private life, reports of lavish parties and alleged encounters with prostitutes.

Mr Berlusconi based much of his speech on the risks Italy would face in the event of a government downfall.

His government has generally won praise for its reaction to the global financial crisis, steadfastly directed by Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti and including a rigorous austerity package.

Italy has high public debt and recently faced renewed threats of becoming engulfed in the euro zone's debt crisis. But the country is still widely viewed as low-risk due to the low level of private debt, relatively sound banking system, and experience in dealing with high public debt levels.

"If your concern over Italy's difficult situation is honest and real, then the only possible way forward is renewing confidence in my government," Mr Berlusconi said. Such a vote, he said, "will be proof of realism and political wisdom."

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