Silvio Berlusconi eclipsed as Italy's PM survives key vote

Silvio Berlusconi reversed his antigovernment stance after his party threatened to split on today's confidence vote – which may signal better days ahead for Italian politics.

Gregorio Borgia/AP
Italian Premier Enrico Letta kisses the hand of an unidentified senator after delivering his speech at the Senate in Rome on Wednesday. Mr. Letta's government won a confidence vote on Wednesday after Silvio Berlusconi reversed his threat to bring down Italy's fragile ruling coalition.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta averted major political chaos in Italy, winning a confidence vote Wednesday that shores up support for his coalition government and that, as a political defeat for Silvio Berlusconi, could mark a turning point in Italian politics.

Mr. Letta, who became prime minister this spring after inconclusive elections in February, has overseen a fragile coalition of his center-left Democratic Party (PD) party and the center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party that could have fallen apart today.

Ministers of the PDL were ordered by the party leader, billionaire Mr. Berlusconi, to resign over the weekend, leading Mr. Letta to organize today's confidence vote. Had he lost, a new round of elections may have loomed in Italy. But appealing for political stability, Letta won the vote: Berlusconi himself – and members of his party – ended up backing the government.

Although Berlusconi made a U-turn to the winning side of the vote, he is likely to come out of this deeply weakened – which could open a new chapter in Italian politics and clear the way for changes on the right.

“Berlusconi has been defeated within his own party,” says Andrea Mammone, a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, who co-edited "Italy Today: The Sick Man of Europe."

If the party begins to split between a radical faction and a more moderate one, the possibilities of governing Italy in a more functional democracy grow, Dr. Mammone says.

The government that Italy was forced to cobble together in April, after no clear winner in Italy's winter election, was thrown into crisis as a vote neared to expel Berlusconi from his position in parliament due to his August conviction for tax fraud.

Letta gave an impassioned speech today to draw politicians to his side. "Italy is running a risk that could be fatal, without remedy. Thwarting this risk, to seize or not seize the moment, depends on the choices we will make in this chamber. It depends on a yes or a no," he said.

Leading into the vote, some members of Berlusconi's party had said they would defect from his side, potentially opening divides in his party.

But in a stunning turnaround, Berlusconi stood up Wednesday and said: "Italy needs a government that can produce structural and institutional reforms. We have decided, not without internal strife, to back the confidence vote."

Berlusconi has been unpredictable for the past two decades, say analysts, and his U-turn could be a way of appearing not to lose his grip on the party.

But he appears to be losing sway anyway. Ipsos released a poll this week showing the 61 percent of PDL voters supported their party's backing of Letta. Fifty-one percent sought a new leader for the party.

“Berlusconi is clearly going down,” says Stefano Sacchi, a professor of political science at the University of Milan. The question, Dr. Sacchi says, is how long it will take. “[Berlusconi] may carry Italy down the drain with him.”

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