Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived an important vote of no confidence by the narrowest of margins Tuesday but emerged with a severely weakened mandate that has thrown doubt on his ability to govern effectively.
The 314-311 vote in the lower house of Parliament was a fresh demonstration of the billionaire politician’s Houdini-like knack for escape. Although Berlusconi had insisted that he would prevail, the outcome was on a knife edge going in to the vote, even after days of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
But the wafer-thin victory suggests it will be difficult for him to pass legislation or enact his center-right agenda, prolonging the sense of political paralysis gripping Italy. For months, Berlusconi has been battling corruption probes into his business dealings and a series of scandals surrounding his private life, including allegations that he threw lavish parties attended by prostitutes.
His polarizing influence was on display Tuesday both inside and outside Parliament, where he faced confidence votes in the Senate and, more important, in the sharply divided lower house.
On the streets of Rome, anti-Berlusconi protesters torched cars and smashed shop windows, clashing with police in riot gear, who fired tear gas at the crowds. Dozens of officers were reported injured.
Large demonstrations also were reported in other parts of the country, including the cities of Palermo and Turin.
Inside the Chamber of Deputies, a scuffle between lawmakers broke out when one legislator, who had been expected to vote against Berlusconi, changed her mind and supported him instead.
When the final tally was announced, the prime minister’s allies erupted in cheers, while his opponents sat stony faced or filed quickly out of the chamber.
In a debate before the vote, Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, blamed Berlusconi for perpetuating Italy’s political woes. Even if Berlusconi defeated the censure motion, Bersani said, it would be “a Pyrrhic victory” because his government would remain unstable.
But on Monday, the embattled premier staunchly defended his record in speeches before both houses of Parliament, and warned that jettisoning him would be an act of madness at a time of extreme economic delicacy because of the crisis over the euro.
Berlusconi 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.
Still, international markets have shown increasing concern over Italy’s political situation and its ability to tackle the government’s budget deficit and one of the biggest burdens of public debt in Europe. Borrowing costs for Rome have lately hit alarmingly high levels, and investors are now left to wonder whether Berlusconi will be able to push through the structural changes the Italian economy needs to become more competitive.
Earlier Tuesday, in the first of the two confidence motions in Parliament, the Senate reaffirmed its support of Berlusconi by a comfortable margin. That was expected, because his ruling coalition commands a safe majority in the upper chamber.
But in the lower house, the outcome of the second motion was so unpredictable that vote counters found themselves scrutinizing the health of three pregnant lawmakers, who had vowed to vote against Berlusconi but who were at risk of going into labor at any moment. The absence of any one of them could possibly tip the scales.
In the end, all three women managed to show up in Parliament, though one had to arrive in an ambulance and another was confined to a wheelchair. Their allies cheered as they cast their votes against the prime minister.