Berlusconi confidence votes spur protests

Violent protests have erupted in Rome after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi won back-to-back confidence votes in parliament, narrowly surviving one of his toughest political challenges yet.
Protesters in Rome torch cars after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived two confidence votes Tuesday. ((Giampiero Sposito/Reuters))

Silvio Berlusconi pulled off another astonishing escape from the political dead, scraping through two confidence votes Tuesday in a dramatic parliamentary showdown.

But the Italian leader's hold on power remains precarious as his razor-thin victory makes political gridlock a near certainty — and violent street protests show growing unease with his rule.

Masked protesters torched cars and trash bins, smashed shop windows and clashed with police.

Clouds of white tear gas and orange flares engulfed streets, as shops full of Christmas goods hurriedly closed down. Employees at one bank cowered in fear as a group of stone-throwing youths swept by.

Protesters rampaged in the area around parliament and Berlusconi's residence, which had been cordoned off by heavy police presence.

By sundown, almost 100 people, both protesters and police, were reported injured, including about two dozen hospitalized. About 40 were reportedly taken into police custody.

The chaos followed speculation in recent weeks that the end of the Berlusconi era was near.

Weakened by sex scandals and a bitter breakup with his one-time closest ally, Berlusconi seemed destined to be sent packing. The split with Gianfranco Fini had eroded the premier's once comfortable parliamentary majority and left him vulnerable in the lower house.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi applauds following a confidence vote at the lower chamber in Rome on Tuesday. ((Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press))

But Berlusconi battled back, as he has countless times when his political career seemed to be on the ropes. Tuesday's drama confirmed his status as the ultimate political survivor — but he emerges from the battle severely weakened and one top opposition lawmaker called his success a "Pyrrhic victory."

In the most dramatic and closest of the two tests, Berlusconi survived the no-confidence motion in the lower house by just three votes. Scuffles between lawmakers forced a brief suspension in the voting session.

Earlier in the day, Berlusconi had secured a more comfortable victory in a confidence vote at the Senate.

The vote's slim margin means Berlusconi can no longer count on a secure parliamentary majority for passing legislation. Some experts predict he might resign in upcoming weeks, a move that could lead to early elections, which he hopes to win again.

Berlusconi survived Tuesday's challenge by exploiting rifts inside Fini's camp — at the moment of truth, three supporters defected — and managed to sway a handful of undecided lawmakers to his side. In the process, he drew accusations of vote-buying, amid claims of cash changing hands and favours lavished. Berlusconi's allies reject the allegations.

"I'm not a survivor — I'm strong, robust," a smiling Berlusconi joked after the vote.

Pressing his case before lawmakers on the eve of the showdown, the premier argued that his government had successfully worked to protect Italy from becoming engulfed in the eurozone's debt crisis. He warned that political instability would hurt Italy as it fights for its economic future.

Italy is plagued by a high public debt level and slow growth. The country is still widely viewed as low-risk due to the low level of private debt, a relatively sound banking system and experience in dealing with high public debt levels.

Still, markets were closely monitoring the results of the votes; Italy's main bourse closed little changed on Tuesday.