Defeat in parliament: Berlusconi's 'final chapter'?

Abandoned by top aides and choked by legal woes, Silvio Berlusconi's defeat in a showdown with Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Wednesday was seen by analysts as a sign of his terminal decline.

"I think we are seeing the final chapter of Berlusconi's political life," Giacomo Marramao, a politics professor at Roma Tre university, told AFP after a dramatic confidence vote in parliament.

"The result is less credibility, a decline in credibility," Marramao said, pointing to the divisions within Berlusconi's once fiercely loyal centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.

"A post-Berlusconi party was born today," he said.

After two decades in politics, the bombastic tycoon who once compared himself to Jesus Christ cut an increasingly lonely figure as one by one his lieutenants broke ranks to support the government.

As Berlusconi left the Senate chamber after his spectacular U-turn from trying to topple Letta's government to supporting it in a parliamentary confidence vote, a crowd of protesters chanted "Go away!"

Even before his shock turnaround, analysts said his confusing statements showed powerlessness.

"He seems a bit like a shadow of his former self," said Stefano Folli, a columnist for the Il Sole 24 Ore business daily, describing a poignant "human drama inside the political drama" for the embattled three-time former prime minister.

Filippo Ceccarelli in leftist daily La Repubblica even compared Wednesday to July 25, 1943 when dictator Benito Mussolini was formally deposed in a vote by the Grand Council of Fascism.

"An entire world is falling down," he said.

The real threat to Berlusconi's career, however, comes not from humiliation in parliament where he has bounced back before but from his many and increasingly serious legal woes, analysts said.

"He doesn't have complete control of his party any more but he does still hold a lot of weight," said James Walston, a professor in international relations at the American University of Rome.

"However, his growing legal issues point to his exit sooner or later," Walston said.

Berlusconi this month is set to be expelled from his Senate seat and barred from running in the next elections following his first definitive criminal conviction for tax fraud in August.

A judge in Milan is also due to decide this month whether the 12-month sentence Berlusconi received in that conviction should be served as house arrest or community service -- an ignominious fate for the formerly all-powerful billionaire magnate.

The 77-year-old is also appealing a seven-year prison sentence for having sex with an underage prostitute and for abuse of office when he was prime minister, as well as a one-year sentence for leaking a police wiretap to damage a rival.

Berlusconi's fall from grace was shown up in the derision prompted by images of the ex-premier seen earlier this week holding his white poodle Dudu in the courtyard of his Roman palazzo in between marathon political talks.

"He held that dog in his arms because it was the only creature that lonely man, that leader on the brink, could trust," La Repubblica said.

But Berlusconi has managed comebacks before -- albeit never from such a position of weakness -- and some analysts were not so quick to write him off.

"Berlusconi is trying to salvage his position of influence within the government and reunite his party. He has some chance of papering over the cracks," Walston said, adding: "Berlusconi will continue to be an influence in politics".

The charismatic leader has proved a formidable campaigner and surprised many naysayers by returning after being forced out of office in November 2011 in a blaze of parliamentary rebellion, financial market panic and sex scandals.

"Berlusconi has seven lives and it is not out of the question that he could invent an eighth one," Antonio Polito wrote in the Corriere della Sera daily, saying it was time for the centre-right to find a new leader.

"There are those who think it is not possible for men and women born and bred under Berlusconi's star to have the strength for such a change.

"It is very difficult but democratic politics is about patricide," he said.