Minister resigns in blow to Berlusconi


An Italian minister resigned in the middle of an embezzlement trial today, dealing a fresh blow to prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as he faces one of the most difficult periods of his two-year premiership.

The resignation of Aldo Brancher, a former executive in Mr Berlusconi's Fininvest media empire who was unexpectedly named as "minister for federalism" last month, was announced in a Milan court at a hearing over embezzlement in a bank takeover.

"I am announcing my irrevocable decision to resign as government minister," Mr Brancher said, adding that he wished to avoid the case being "instrumentalised" by opponents of the government.

His departure comes at a time when Berlusconi is struggling with slumping popularity, open conflict with partners in his centre-right coalition and broad opposition to a €25 billion austerity package intended to shore up Italy's creaking public finances.

Mr Berlusconi expressed support for Mr Brancher but said in a statement that he accepted the resignation, which he said had been offered to avoid "unfair controversy".

Mr Brancher's departure, which follows the resignation in May of Industry Minister Claudio Scajola over a shady real estate deal, follows a storm of criticism over his sudden appointment on June 18th and his subsequent claim for immunity from prosecution because of his new job.

But the move removes the threat of a confidence vote on the minister which the opposition had called for Thursday over the affair and which could have acted as a lightning rod for discontent with the government.

"Berlusconi is trying to shut off at least one of the many critical fronts for the government. But the ruling coalition is in disarray," said Rosy Bindi, deputy speaker of parliament and president of the centre-left Democratic Party.

The Brancher affair formed a subplot to a broader series of problems for the government which has been split by infighting between Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament and co-founder of the ruling People of Freedom coalition.

Today, the Il Giornale daily, which is owned by the Berlusconi family, carried the frontpage headline "Fini, leader of the conspiracy" and said the former head of the National Alliance party was prepared to bring down the government.

Fini and his allies in the coalition had criticised Brancher's appointment, saying the government had to dispel suspicions that he had been named minister simply to help him avoid trial. They have also openly attacked Mr Berlusconi's plans to rush through a law intended to limit the use of wiretaps.

Mr Berlusconi says the law is needed to strengthen the right to privacy but critics say it would hamper investigations into organised crime and limit the ability of the press to report on cases of corruption.

A former executive in Mr Berlusconi's Fininvest media empire, Mr Brancher was already on trial when he was appointed as minister.

He used his newly acquired status to claim immunity but was forced to retreat and drop the claim days later in the face of widespread outrage.