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Berlusconi survives no-confidence votes

December 14, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: December 14 2010 

Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition held on to power in Italy by a knife-edge on Tuesday after surviving votes of no-confidence in parliament that nonetheless demonstrated the weakness of his centre-right government. The final tally in the lower chamber of deputies, after two days of stormy debate and even fist fights between deputies, saw the government defeat a rebellion led by former allies by 314 votes to 311, with two abstentions. The vote showed that Mr Berlusconi no longer commands an absolute majority in the 630-member house.

Politicians in Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party conceded that the government could not continue in its present form. Either the ruling coalition would attempt to bring in some of the prime minister’s opponents or resign and make way for elections early in 2011, two years ahead of schedule.

The sense of a government under siege was reinforced by demonstrations across Italy by thousands of students and workers protesting against the prime minister’s budget cuts and austerity programme. In Rome, ranks of riot police sealed off streets to prevent demonstrators from reaching parliament as deputies voted.

Rioting erupted in the streets of Rome after the vote as scores of masked demonstrators, amongst thousands of peaceful protesters, attacked public buildings and tried to break through lines of riot police barring their progress towards parliament.

After meeting his closest associates, Mr Berlusconi made an appointment later on Tuesday to brief Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, on developments.

Politicians said they expected Mr Berlusconi to explain his intention to try and form a new coalition government, although prospects for reconciliation with his rivals appear bleak. Should Mr Berlusconi unexpectedly submit his resignation then the final decision on whether to dissolve parliament or find an alternative government rests with the president.

Mr Berlusconi’s sole remaining coalition partner, the Milan-based Northern League led by Umberto Bossi, is openly pushing for early elections, unwilling to negotiate a pact with centre-right rebels led by Gianfranco Fini, a former long-time ally, or the centrist Catholic UDC party led by Pier Ferdinando Casini.

Both Mr Casini and Mr Fini have expressed their openness to a new centre-right government or a caretaker administration but under new leadership. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main opposition Democratic party, is also in favour of a transitional government, declaring that elections would not resolve the stalemate.

Accusations of betrayal and attempted bribery flew back and forth in the lower house during Tuesday morning’s final debate, with tensions rising after late-night mediation efforts had failed to heal the rift between Mr Berlusconi and Mr Fini.

“Run away, prime minister! Get to the Bahamas,” bellowed Antonio Di Pietro, the vociferous leader of the opposition Italy of Values party. “Berlusconi is at the end of the line,” he said, accusing the 74-year-old prime minister of pursuing his business interests in office and trying to bribe deputies for their support.

“The Berlusconi cycle, I am sorry to tell the opposition, is not over,” declared Fabrizio Cicchitto, parliamentary head of the People of Liberty.

“If Berlusconi did not exist, we would have to invent him,” he said, defending the billionaire prime minister’s 16 years at the helm of the centre-right and his three election victories since 1994.

Mr Fini presided over the debate in the lower house in his capacity as speaker, urging calm as tempers flew. Although the leader of the centre-right revolt against his former ally, he followed tradition in his role as speaker by not casting a vote.

Intense lobbying prior to the vote was focused on a handful of opposition lawmakers and rebels who had indicated they might support the government in the interest of national stability.

In speeches to both houses on Monday, Mr Berlusconi appealed to “moderates” to return to his side, offering to reshuffle his government and warning that Italy could not risk uncertainty at a time of eurozone crisis. Mr Cicchitto on Tuesday repeated Mr Berlusconi’s offer to expand the ruling coalition and consider a new agreed package of reforms.

As expected, the government comfortably won its vote of confidence in the senate by 162 votes to 135 earlier on Tuesday.

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