Silvio Berlusconi's political fight is going down to the wire

Flamboyant Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is desperately marshaling support ahead of two parliamentary votes that could see him ousted from office Tuesday.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sits at the Senate in Rome December 13. Berlusconi warned members of parliament they risked plunging Italy into the middle of the euro zone's debt crisis if they vote against him in a no-confidence vote due on Tuesday.

Silvio Berlusconi is fighting for his political life as he faces two no-confidence votes that could bring down his government and pitch Italy into an acute political crisis.

Just 2-1/2 years into his five-year term as the Italian prime minister, the media tycoon has spent the last week maneuvering to ensure he has the numbers to win the censure motions on Tuesday in the lower and upper houses of parliament.

The horse-trading has been so murky that an investigation has been launched by a court in Rome into allegations that some opposition MPs have been bought off with promises of political positions or cash, or help with paying off their mortgages.

The numbers are too close to call, with the latest estimates suggesting that the former cruise ship crooner, who is the longest-serving prime minister in Italy since World War II, might just squeak through with a razor-thin majority.

Mr. Berlusconi has displayed a Houdini-like ability to wriggle out of tight spots in the past, surviving sex scandals involving prostitutes and showgirls, corruption trials, and allegations of links to the mafia.

But analysts warn that even if he does manage to win the confidence votes, it could be a Pyrrhic victory, with his position so weakened that political turmoil is almost guaranteed to drag into 2011.

Government majority

The government has a majority in the Senate, or upper house of parliament, and is expected to win the first of two votes there.

But all eyes will be on the Chamber of Deputies, where Berlusconi no longer has a guaranteed majority following a bitter rift over the summer with the co-founder of his party and one-time ally, Gianfranco Fini, a fascist-turned-moderate who is the speaker of the lower house.

If the government loses the vote in the Chamber of Deputies, Berlusconi will be forced to resign.

Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, would then most likely appoint an interim leader, who would run the country until fresh elections can be held, most likely in March.

But even in this worst-case scenario, all is not lost for Berlusconi. His past as a salesman makes him a superb political campaigner and he is able to communicate directly to Italians through his control of the majority of Italy’s main television channels.

He could very well bounce back and be re-elected as leader of the new government, albeit with diminished support in parliament.

In a last-minute appeal to wavering MPs, Berlusconi said today that it would be “folly” to precipitate a political crisis at a time when Italy is facing the sort of economic pressures that have created chaos in countries like Greece and Ireland.... I ask you ... to reflect on the political folly that opening a crisis without visible and credible solutions would be today."

The key to Berlusconi's longevity lies partly in the fact that the alternative is so unpalatable to many Italians. The main opposition Democratic Party, from the center-left, has been weakened by constant changes of leadership and a lack of unity.

Italians are also much more forgiving of Berlusconi’s apparent dalliances than voters in the US or Britain would be, taking the view that his relationships with models and starlets are either an inevitable perk of wealth and power or irrelevant to his ability to govern.

“The sex scandals won’t bring him down, because of the peculiarities of Italy – this sort of behavior is seen as either praiseworthy, or at least typical and understandable,” says Stephen Gundle, a specialist in Italian politics and culture at Warwick University in the UK.“The women have got younger as he has got older. It reflects the fact that he refuses to age, and also his desire to project an image of youthful vigour.”

Millions of Italians continue to admire him despite his penchant for partying with women young enough to be his granddaughters. “What do most Italians think?” asks one of the country’s best-known columnists and writers, Beppe Severgnini, in a new book. “He looks like us. He’s one of us. He adores his kids, talks about his mama, knows his football, makes money, hates rules, tells jokes, swears a bit, adores women, likes to party and is convivial to a fault."

Berlusconi’s control of the Italian media is also key to his resilience and has helped him win three terms in office in the last 16 years.

As prime minister, he indirectly exerts control over the public broadcaster, Rai, while the private channels he owns talk up his achievements while downplaying or ignoring outright his scandals.

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