Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi squeaked through a vote of no confidence in his government Tuesday, surviving one of the toughest tests of his leadership but emerging with his power severely weakened.
The media magnate, who has led Italy for most of the last decade, secured the barest of majorities in a vote marred by scuffles in the lower house of Parliament. Lawmakers voted 314-311 in favor of the government.
Earlier, the Italian Senate gave a thumbs-up to Berlusconi by a comfortable margin.
That was expected, because Berlusconi’s center-right coalition commands a safe majority in the upper chamber. But in the lower house, the outcome was in doubt until almost the last minute after days of political horse-trading and even scrutiny of the health of three pregnant lawmakers, who had vowed to vote against Berlusconi but were at risk of going into labor at any moment.
During and after the vote, anti-Berlusconi protesters set cars alight and smashed store windows. Police fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowds.
The no-confidence motion was put forward by opponents who argued that Berlusconi’s scandal-ridden private life, his alleged attempts to head off investigations into his business dealings and the lackluster state of the economy made his continued tenure as prime minister impossible.
But the 74-year-old Berlusconi is one of the great escape artists of Italian politics. He defended his record in speeches before both houses of Parliament on Monday, and warned that jettisoning him now would be an act of madness at a time of extreme economic delicacy because of the crisis over the euro.
He also extended an olive branch to some of his political foes, suggesting that he would re-formulate his government to include them and their views.
There were accusations of vote-buying by the billionaire premier in the frantic negotiations leading up to Tuesday’s vote; authorities are now investigating
During the voting, fighting on the chamber floor broke out when one lawmaker who had been expected to vote against Berlusconi changed her mind and voted for him instead. When the result was announced, Berlusconi’s supporters erupted in cheers.
Though he survived, Berlusconi finds himself much weakened. His popularity is at a low ebb, hurt by the constant stories of lavish parties full of beautiful young women -- including some self-professed prostitutes -- and by corruption probes into his business interests.
He has also failed to deliver some of his promised reforms to make the Italian economy more productive and competitive.
Elections are not formally due until 2013. Some analysts say his government may not last until then, but Tuesday’s vote attested to his skills as a political survivor.