By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 10:55 PM
ROME - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a confidence vote in Parliament on Tuesday as demonstrators opposed to his rule clashed with police in street protests that essentially closed the center of Rome.
The 314 to 311 vote in the lower house of Parliament will allow Berlusconi to continue dominating the nation's politics but leave him struggling to govern with a slim majority. At the same time, it dealt a blow to opposition leaders and Berlusconi's ambitious former allies, who had considered it their best chance yet to remove the 74-year-old media mogul from power.
"Without a doubt, the government will go on," Berlusconi said. A defeat would have forced his resignation.
Supporters in the chamber applauded as Berlusconi cast his vote. Outside, protesters rampaged. Masked demonstrators burned cars and smashed shop windows. Plumes of white tear gas billowed over city squares. More than 100,000 anti-Berlusconi demonstrators snaked through the capital. Large student protests converged on Piazza Venezia, a block from Berlusconi's fortified private residence.
By sundown, almost 100 people - both protesters and police - were reported injured, including about two dozen hospitalized, according to the Associated Press. About 40 were reportedly taken into police custody.
The crisis comes after a steady stream of sex scandals involving the prime minister and as Berlusconi - who has immunity from prosecution as long as he remains in office - is the subject of several criminal investigations. Magistrates in Rome are looking into allegations that he has purchased the votes of Parliament members by, among other things, paying off mortgages.
A former close Berlusconi ally, Gianfranco Fini, who spurred the government crisis by withdrawing his support from the ruling coalition, alleged over the weekend that Berlusconi's motivation for staying in power was to ultimately avoid prosecution.
Tuesday's tense vote commanded the entire nation's attention. Newspapers called it the "day of truth" or "B-Day."
"The vote signifies a step ahead for Italian stability," said Niccolo Ghedini, a member of Parliament in Berlusconi's party and Berlusconi's personal lawyer. Ghedini, who is defending the prime minister in several criminal cases, dismissed Fini's claim as false.
The three-vote margin will make it difficult for Berlusconi to pass legislation while Italy is faced with a precarious economy. Ghedini said the prime minister will now seek to broaden his coalition with moderate voices.
Berlusconi won a separate confidence vote earlier in the day in the Italian Senate, where he has the support of a larger majority.
Berlusconi's antagonists tried their best to find something positive in the vote. "In Italy, the problem is not Berlusconi, it's Berlusconism," said Nichi Vendola, the openly gay governor of the southern Apulia region who is considered the left's most charismatic leader and a potential threat to Berlusconi in an election. "If we got rid of him today, and not Berlusconism, it would not have made much progress."
Francesco Rutelli, a center-left politician who lost to Berlusconi in the 2001 general election, described him as weaker than ever and argued that the clear break between Berlusconi and Fini amounted to a "historic event," creating space for what he called a "third pole," an alternative grouping of moderate politicians, including himself and Fini.
At that point, Rutelli received a phone call from Fini. A few minutes later, Rutelli called back to confirm a new alliance of old enemies in the common battle against Berlusconi. "We will be ready," Rutelli said.