ROME (AP) -- Italy's political instability deepened Thursday as its respected president harshly rebuked lawmakers of Silvio Berlusconi's party for purportedly threatening to resign en masse if the former premier is ousted from Parliament. If carried out, the resignations would spark a government crisis.
The Senate is due to vote next week on whether to strip Berlusconi of his seat following his conviction of tax fraud and four-year prison sentence. A 2012 law bans anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison from holding or running for public office for six years.
With tensions high going into the vote, members of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party met Wednesday and indicated they would resign if Berlusconi is removed from the Senate. No formal announcement was made and party leaders later stressed that each lawmaker was free to decide his or her own conscience. But the development nevertheless had the effect of more than just a trial balloon.
In an unusually stern statement, President Giorgio Napolitano accused Berlusconi's party members of undermining Italy's parliamentary system. He said if carried out, their "worrisome" threat would have the effect of pressuring him into dissolving parliament, a move that would spark a crisis in the 5-month-old, left-right hybrid government led by Premier Enrico Letta.
Investors responded to the political tensions with concern. Milan's stock index was down 1.4 percent at 17,831 while the government's borrowing rates on the bond markets rose, both signs that investors are worried about the impact on the country's financial stability. Though Italy hasn't needed a financial bailout like other countries that use the euro, such as Greece and Portugal, it has high debts that have compelled successive governments to instigate wide-ranging economic reforms.
Berlusconi was convicted over a scheme to purchase the rights to broadcast U.S. movies on his Mediaset empire through a series of offshore companies that involved the false declaration of payments to avoid taxes. His defense argued that he was busy in politics at the time and no longer involved in managing the day-to-day activities of his business empire.
Italy's high court upheld the conviction on Aug. 1.
Napolitano said it was "absurd" for Berlusconi's allies to claim that the media mogul was being overthrown in a "coup" by magistrates. Berlusconi has claimed the Italian judiciary is bent on eliminating him from political life, and has taken his case to the European Court for Human Rights claiming his personal and political rights have been violated.
The president insisted that definitive court rulings must be respected and applied, saying it's a principle that is as sacrosanct throughout Europe as the independence of the judiciary itself.
"There is still time, and I hope it is used, for People of Freedom lawmakers to find a way to express their political and human support for their party president — if indeed that is their aim — without threatening the work of two branches of parliament," he said.
The threat to essentially bring down the government over the legal woes of a single man was seen as particularly grave and downright irresponsible given it came at the precise time that Letta was in New York promoting recession-mired Italy as a safe place for foreign investment.
Gianluca Susta, who heads the Civic Choice party of ex-Premier Mario Monti in the Senate, said any such resignation by Berlusconi's lawmakers would make them appear more like the "court of an absolute monarchy" than elected representatives in a democracy.
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