Italy's Letta vows to fight populism before vote test

Italy's Letta vows to fight populism before vote test
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister's Chancellery in Warsaw, December 5, 2013.

ROME - Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Wednesday vowed to rescue Italy from populism amid simmering social tensions, ahead of a confidence vote triggered by the fall of disgraced billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

Letta promised a pro-European agenda and reforms to increase political stability in the recession-hit country, condemning forces of "chaos" after sometimes violent anti-austerity protests this week across Italy.

"We will not allow Italy to sink again," Letta told lawmakers, promising to "fight with everything I have to avoid our country being thrown back into chaos just as it is beginning to lift itself up again".

"Today we are drawing a clear line. On this side are those who love Europe... knowing that without the European Union we would plunge into the Middle Ages.

"On that side are those who want to block Europe," he said in a thinly-veiled reference to Berlusconi and the anti-establishment firebrand politician Beppe Grillo.

Letta admitted that instability had "weakened" his government but voiced hope that a widely expected victory in the confidence vote later on Wednesday would give his coalition a stronger mandate to govern.

He said he would impose further cuts on Italy's overweight bureaucratic machine and aim for gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 1.0 percent in 2014 and 2.0 percent in 2015, while also slashing debt.

"Italy will shake off the image of an unstable, Baroque country that can never decide anything," said Letta, who came to power in April following a two-month stalemate after an inconclusive general election.

Social tensions have marred the parliament vote, which was called after the scandal-tainted Berlusconi's party quit the ruling left-right coalition and he was ejected from parliament over a tax fraud conviction.

Berlusconi's departure from the coalition would have brought down the government but a group of the 77-year-old playboy politician's former proteges broke from him and chose to stay in the cabinet.

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