Italian minister Roberto Calderoli was expected to heed calls for him to resign Saturday after apparently provoking deadly protests in Libya by wearing a T-shirt deemed to be anti-Islamic.
He was not expected to go quietly, however, telling journalists he would only step down if asked to do so by the leader of his Northern League party, Umberto Bossi.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi led calls for Calderoli to resign late Friday but said his hands were tied by constitutional rules whereby only the leader of the minister’s political party can force him to step aside.
The League is a small, vociferously anti-immigrant, component of Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition.
"Roberto Calderoli must resign. I have spoken to Umberto Bossi and he has also condemned him," Berlusconi told journalists late Friday as news unfolded of a mounting death toll in protests outside Italy’s consulate in Benghazi. At least 10 people were killed in clashes with police.
Exposed on the news
The demonstrators were reportedly angered by Calderoli’s announcement earlier in the week that he would wear T-shirts displaying controversial cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed.
The minister made good on his threat by appearing on a prime-time news programme on state television Thursday wearing the T-shirt, part of which he exposed by unbuttoning his shirt.
By early Saturday, there was no sign of an immediate resignation from
Calderoli, despite a chorus of disapproval for his anti-Islamic stance from government colleagues.
The minister was unrepentant in a series of newspaper interviews Saturday, saying his T-shirt protest against Islamic intolerance was being manipulated.
He said he would step down only if asked to by Bossi, adding that he did not feel "responsible" for the rioting.
"I can be sorry for the victims, but what happened in Libya has nothing to do with my T-shirt. The question is different. What’s at stake is Western civilization," the daily La Repubblica quoted him as saying.
"For years now we have been subjected to threats, we’ve been subjected to terrorism and nobody is calling for reciprocal respect," said the minister.
Fearing a continuing backlash, Italy’s Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu ordered security to be stepped up at Italian embassies abroad as well as at Northern League offices in the wake of the Benghazi violence.
Calderoli, who is in charge of reforms, said Berlusconi had already asked him to resign when he first announced his T-shirt campaign. "He already asked me last week, and I haven’t resigned. And for sure, I haven’t changed my mind."
The 49-year-old party strongman is close to Bossi, having been chosen by the party leader to replace him as minister for institutional reform in Berlusconi’s cabinet when Bossi suffered a stroke in mid-2004.
Calderoli says he has the support of "many ordinary Italians" and even members of Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini’s right wing National Alliance party. Fini has led criticism of Calderoli’s anti-Muslim behaviour.
The current stand-off is not the first to haunt Berlusconi’s relationship with his allies in the populist party whose ultimate aim is the secession of Italy’s rich northern regions.
In July 2003, he was forced to negotiate with Bossi to fire a junior
tourism minister, Stefano Stefani, who prolonged a well-publicised diplomatic rift with Berlin when he insulted German tourists.
That row had begun when Berlusconi himself, in a speech to the European Parliament, compared a German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
With a general election due in April, the prime minister’s main concern now is to avoid a similar diplomatic row between his government and Islamic states.