Gay-rights row adds to govt headaches
Figures from Berlusconi's party call for 'moratorium'
(ANSA) - Rome, July 22 - Premier Enrico Letta had another headache to deal with on Monday after a call for his fragile right-left executive to impose a moratorium on "ethical issues", such as gay rights.
Senior members of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom Party (PdL), whose support Letta needs to keep the government afloat, said the moratorium would enable the administration to focus on pressing economic issues, as the country tries to emerge from its longest recession in over two decades.
Top PdL figures, including Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi, ex-labour minister Maurizio Sacconi, former equal opportunities minister Mara Carfagna, and ex-education minister Mariastella Gelmini, proposed suspending ''ethical measures'', including a bill against homophobia.
Elements in the PdL are unhappy about the bill and fear it could pave the way for legislation legalising same-sex unions. Debate has also raged over Congo-born Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge's calls for more liberal migration and citizenship rules. Kyenge has spoken about the possibility of introducing new hate speech laws to combat racism and xenophobia too. "Ethical issues and homophobia? I think today the priorities are economic issues," the PdL's House whip Renato Brunetta told Sky television. "My colleagues and I, who have requested the moratorium, wonder, well, in this climate in which economic problems prevail, is it useful to fight over so-called ethical issues?". But the call for an 'ethical moratorium' was criticised by some within the PdL and Relations with Parliament Minister Dario Franceschini rejected it.
"A law to fight homophobia has nothing to do with ethical issues," said Franceschini, a member of Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD). "It regards the criminal code and the introduction of effective measures, which it has taken too long to approve.
"These are urgent and cannot be delayed any longer". The controversy has joined a long list of potential pitfalls for Letta's government, which is based on an unprecedented PD-PdL alliance cobbled together in April to end two months of political deadlock after February's general election failed to produce a clear winner.
The PdL may pull the plug on the government if the supreme Court of Cassation next week upholds a four-year prison term against Berlusconi for fraud at his media empire that also comes with a five-year ban from holding public office.
Letta has also received a demand from Brunetta for him to have a cabinet reshuffle to increase the number of PdL ministers in the executive.
At the moment there are five ministers from the PdL, which came a narrow second to the PD in February, compared to 10 cabinet members for the centre-left. PD Lower House whip Roberto Speranza called Brunetta's request a "fantasy". "The PdL must demonstrate the ability to put the interests of the country above those of their party and Silvio Berlusconi," Speranza told daily newspaper Il Corriere della Sera.
There is some good news for the government as well though. Regional Affairs Minister Graziano Delrio said the executive is close to reaching an agreement to scrap the IMU property tax, one of the thorniest issues it has faced since it took power. The PdL has repeatedly threatened to pull its support from the government and sink it if the unpopular tax is not scrapped and the 2012 revenues from it returned to respect a pledge made in the campaign for February's general election. Letta has suspended this year's payments of the tax until December to allow time for it to be revised, but has not yet said the tax will be scrapped completely. The government needs to find around four billion euros to cover the revenues that were destined to be raised by IMU in the already tight State budget. Economy Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni has said it will be difficult to scrap IMU and hit other policy targets, such as preventing a 1% rise in the top band of value added tax scheduled for later this year. Delrio, a PD man, told Turin daily La Stampa that IMU will be abolished on all primary residences, except for luxury homes.
It will also stay in place on holiday homes and other properties that are not the owners' main place of residence. He said the question now was not whether IMU would be scrapped, but whether it would abolished this year or next.