Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi eked out a slim victory today, narrowly surviving a no confidence vote after telling Parliament there was "no credible alternative" to his leadership.
The fate of the Italian government remained uncertain until the very end of the roll call with a final tally of 316 votes supporting Berlusconi and 301 opposed.
The narrowness of the vote, however, leaves in doubt the government's ability to handle the growing economic crisis.
Berlusconi, 75, lacked his usual smile and bounce as he battled to survive as leader of Italy's governing coalition. Nevertheless, shortly before the vote he told reporters that he was confident he would win and said, "I am serene."
"All that matters is that we beat the opposition, who are a farce," he said.
Tensions ran high during the vote. Berlusconi was cheered by his party supporters when he voted, and they shouted "buffoons" when opposition members came in to vote.
When the vote result was announced, about 100 protesters outside shouted "Disgrace" and "You will never have our confidence vote." Police vans entered the square and parked in front of the doors to Parliament and crowd barriers were set up.
Berlusconi has been battered by sex scandals and dogged by judicial trials about his business conduct that many -– both in Italy and around the world -- believed would have forced him to resign by now. But Berlusconi has continued to deny wrongdoing and repeatedly attacked the magistrates of launching politically motivated prosecutions against him.
Berlusconi Survives No Confidence Vote
On Thursday, in his 19-minute address to parliament ahead of today's confidence vote, Berlusconi vowed he would not step down. He insisted his governing majority was strong and there was "no credible alternative" to his leadership for a country going through such hard economic times.
Addressing a hall which was half empty as opposition parliamentarians vacated their seats in protest during his speech, he said that the government was calling for the confidence vote because "it is profoundly aware of the risks the country is facing and that the deadlines dictated by the markets are not compatible with political procedures."
This was not the time for early elections, he said, but if the government lost the vote, early elections would be the only alternative.
Most Italian dailies this morning commented that the speech lacked luster, vigor or novelty. Berlusconi didn't even try to offer new hope to Italians but just reiterated his government was the only viable solution for the country right now. To highlight the tired and bored political mood in the country, the papers printed photos of Berlusconi speaking to the half-empty chamber as his coalition partner, Umberto Bossi, leader of the regionalist Northern League party, sitting by his side yawned -- not once, but 12 times during the short speech.
Massimo Gramellini wrote in today's La Stampa paper, "I didn't manage to count Bossi's yawns because I was yawning too" and in his editorial he likened the two leaders Berlusconi and Bossi to two old pensioners sitting at a bar drinking their grappa. Another political analyst, Luca Ridolfi, in the same paper today writes that he is forced to report on "Nothing. The 'nothing' of a government who doesn't believe in itself, the 'nothing' of an divided opposition."
Today's confidence vote was called after the government lost a key budget vote on Tuesday, partly because some of Berlusconi's parliamentarians were 'distracted' and not present. The defeat Tuesday prompted fresh calls from the centre-left opposition for Berlusconi to resign in favor of a national unity government. The leader of the opposition party, the Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani, said the opposition parties were ready to discuss forming a technical government if Berlusconi fell. "If this is not possible, we should go to vote because we have to do something like Greece, Ireland and Spain who have had a fresh start only through a change in leadership".
Berlusconi attacked the opposition in his speech yesterday -- as he often likes to do -- saying it was "only united by its anti-Berlusconi approach and is totally divided about economic policies." Berlusconi knows to play to the fear of those Italians who see no political alternative to his government and view the opposition as a fractious and unguided group.