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Italy's Silvio Berlusconi emerges victorious, if wounded, from confidence vote

Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a confidence vote, but the embattled prime minister now faces restoring stability to his weakened coalition government.

By Anna MomiglianoCorrespondent / December 14, 2010

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a parliament debate, at the Senate in Rome, Tuesday, Dec. 14.

Riccardo De Luca/AP

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Milan, Italy

Forestalling the end of the Berlusconi era, the Italian prime minister's embattled coalition government today narrowly survived a confidence vote.

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While supporters of Silvio Berlusconi welcomed the result as a great success, his opponents described it as a Pyrrhic victory and wondered how the premier plans to govern the country with such a thin majority in Parliament.

Anti-Berlusconi rioters took to the streets to protest the results of the vote, reported Reuters, setting fire to cars and throwing smoke bombs at the parliament building in Rome where Berlusconi had just emerged victorious.

Berlusconi still has a solid majority in the Senate, where 162 parliamentarians voted in support the government, while 135 voted no confidence and 11 abstained. But it is in the lower house of Parliament that he appears to be in trouble, surviving today's confidence vote by the thin margin of three votes (314 to 311).

“The government is clinically dead,” Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the Democratic Party, the major opposition force, said during a speech today in Parliament. “[Mr. Berlusconi] cannot go ahead. Once he had a majority of 60-70 votes, now he has just three.”

The confidence vote was sparked by Gianfranco Fini, the current speaker of Parliament who last month broke ranks with Berlusconi's Freedom party over allegations that the prime minister had attempted to alter the justice system to avoid accusations of corruption and fraud.

Following the vote, the website of prominent conservative newspaper Libero lashed out against the rebellious parliamentarians with the headline “Fini is on his knees."

It is Berlusconi's future, however, that remains in question. Analysts say he will now try to broaden his thin majority by drawing from small centrist parties that currently are in the opposition.

“He will do whatever he can to get some extra stability," says Antonio Polito, editor of il Riformista progressive daily. “Berlusconi is already trying to convince [Christian Democrat Union leader Pierferdinando] Casini to join the coalition, but I'm not sure Casini will agree.”

“The coup against him has failed, but Berlusconi still has a long way to go get some stability for his government," says Mr. Polito, who says early elections are “still a very viable options.”

Indeed, Berlusconi's main ally Umberto Bossi, who heads the anti-immigration Northern League, has said he is willing to go to the polls. “If we cannot govern [peacefully], the only alternative are the elections," he told the local press.

If elections were held today, according to a recent poll by Euromedia, Berlusconi's Freedom party would get 27.7 percent of the vote and the opposition Democratic party only 24 percent. The Northern League, which would most certainly support Berlusconi, would get 12 percent of votes, while the newly formed center-right Future and Liberty, who broke ranks with the prime minister, would get less than 7 percent.

“Berlusconi himself may not like the idea of early elections,” says Polito, the progressive editor. “But he knows he can handle them well.”

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