Berlusconi survives confidence vote as Italy battles debt crisis

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EMBATTLED Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has survived a crucial confidence vote in parliament but his narrow majority raises doubts over his ability to govern effectively during Italy’s economic crisis.

Mr Berlusconi’s conservatives won the vote in the lower house by 316 votes to 301, a majority of 15.

After days of tension, the premier’s allies clapped when the result of the vote was announced.

Mr Berlusconi has been weakened by sex scandals and criticised for his handling of Italy’s economy.

He has been facing repeated calls for his resignation from his political rivals, labour unions and parts of the business community that once considered him their saviour.

Even some of his own allies have openly expressed disappointment, with two deserting the crucial vote.

Moments after the vote, Mr Berlusconi spoke to reporters about his plan to spur the country’s slow growth.

Had he lost the vote of confidence, he would probably have resigned – about 18 months before the end of his term, in 2013.

Three ratings agencies have downgraded Italy’s public debt, over concern for the country’s political gridlock and low growth prospects.

“This is bad for Italy and bad for the European financial crisis,” said financial commentator Sony Kapoor, shortly after the vote. “The best signal that Italy could have sent to the markets would have been to boot Mr Berlusconi out, but it has failed to do so.”

The 75-year-old leader has insisted that there is no alternative to his government, and resisted calls to resign.

He said today that the “ambush” of the opposition had failed, and moments after the vote, he spoke to reporters about his plan to boost Italy’s slow growth.

The Italian is facing four criminal trials but Mr Berlusconi has shown amazing staying power in the face of scandals over claims of orgies and teenage prostitutes, howling gaffes and a very public separation from his wife. He has always maintained his innocence and blamed left-wing conspiracies in Italy’s legal system.

“There is a boulder that weighs on this country. The magistrates,” he has said of the prosecutors he has likened to left-wing terrorists.

Still, political analysts agree the scandals have cost him any hope of one day taking over Italy’s ceremonial presidency, while he himself has ruled out running again when his term ends in 2013, hand-picking his former justice minister to succeed him.

Opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani said surviving a confidence vote was not the same as governing a country.

“The government is not coping with the situation. The problems have all been laid out, but he only knows how to stay nailed to his seat by using tricks,” he said.

Thousands of demonstrators known as the “indignati” are expected to attend a massive rally in Rome today, targeting the government, banks and financial institutions.

Mr Berlusconi’s coalition partner, the Northern League, has indicated only grudging support for the leader, saying publicly that it is not sure Mr Berlusconi will complete his mandate in 2013.

The confidence vote comes at a crucial moment for Italy, which is under pressure to come up with growth-promoting measures to avoid being dragged into Europe’s widening sovereign debt crisis. Italy has one of the highest public debts in the eurozone, nearing 120 per cent of gross domestic product.

Addressing MPs, Mr Berlusconi argued that only a democratically-elected government enjoyed the support needed to make the painful but necessary decisions to stabilise Italy’s finances.