Berlusconi survives; Rome burns

Editor's update: By three votes, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived a confidence vote. Rome police fended off rioters outside the Senate, and opposing deputies even scuffled inside parliament.

ROME, Italy — Italian newspapers have dubbed it Silvio Berlusconi's “Judgement Day.”

On Tuesday Italy's scandal-ridden prime minister faces a crucial confidence vote in parliament that could mark the end of his 16-year political career.

This comes as a slow-motion crisis in his government nears its end. So far, Berlusconi has been able to survive, despite a devastating financial crisis that has stalled his country's government and threatens to tear apart the eurozone. But it would be rash to bet even this time that the media-mogul-turned-politician is done for.

Taking the numbers at face value, the vote's verdict seems inevitable: After the departure of 36 representatives from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party to follow Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the chamber, who was ousted from the party for criticizing Berlusconi's leadership style and personal scandals, the government is eight votes short of a majority.

But this, in Italian politics, is where the fun begins.

First, the Italian press is unanimous in noting that Berlusconi and his allies, in recent weeks, have been hard at work “recruiting” the key missing votes. These could come from disenchanted members of the opposition Italy of Values party (whose leader, Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption prosecutor, is Berlusconi's most vocal critic), frightened representatives from Fini's side who fear they will not be re-elected in a snap election, or from centrist politicians who have already changed sides countless times in their political careers.

According to the leading center-left daily La Repubblica, these “swing voters” are being tempted not only with the promise of a secure seat in the next election but also with lucrative consulting contracts for a relative or a friend of their choice worth 100,000 euros. One of them, Antonio Razzi, once confessed in a radio interview that Berlusconi's party had offered to extinguish his mortgage in exchange for his allegiance. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, has called on judges to verify whether there are grounds to launch a corruption inquiry.

Add to this two female opposition politicians who are pregnant and due to give birth any day, and the outcome of the vote hangs in the balance.

Then there is always the possibility of a last-minute deal. Fini's hastily formed new party, Future and Freedom, on Sunday went so far as to offer Berlusconi again the chair of prime minister, provided he resigns before Dec. 14 and makes room for it in his cabinet. Berlusconi refused, but second- and third-tier politicians continue to meet and wrangle around-the-clock in the palaces of central Rome.

This leaves the question of what will happen wide open.

If Berlusconi fails the confidence vote, rather than new elections the opposition will probably try to form a new government, maybe by calling on a respected center-right personality to guide it, such as Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti.

But the fractioned opposition might not be able to reach an agreement. More defections could follow. In fact, said veteran centrist politician Pier Ferdinando Casini, the real “Judgement Day” will be Wednesday, when negotiations will likely begin again.

Some commentators have loudly lamented this distraction from the politicians' duties to voters and the country. The Catholic Church — which has remained a supporter, albeit a tepid one, of Berlusconi — has repeatedly called on politicians to work for the “common good.” But Italians, like most journalists, enjoy wallowing in the arcane and byzantine back-and-forths of Italian politics.

While government activity has basically ground to a halt since the political crisis began four months ago, Italy has been shaken by the Irish bailout, student protests against deep funding cuts to universities, rising unemployment and WikiLeaks revelations about the murky connection between Berlusconi and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. All this, though, seems to have had little impact on the political situation.

Ironically, Berlusconi, since entering politics in the wake of a series of corruption scandals in the early 1990s that wiped out most of the political leadership, has always presented himself as an outsider, the entrepreneur who got things done and had no time for the politicking and under-the-table bargaining of politics.

Now he is forced to resort to just the kind of tricks and deals he despised and that he still derides when practiced by career politicians such as Fini.