- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 14, 2010

ROME (AP) — Violent protests have erupted in Rome after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi won back-to-back confidence votes in parliament, narrowly surviving one of his toughest political challenges yet.

Riot police had to use tear gas to try to stop angry demonstrators from torching cars, smashing windows and clashing with police.

Inside parliament’s lower house, tensions boiled over as lawmakers pushed and shoved each other, forcing a brief suspension in the voting.

Ultimately, Mr. Berlusconi survived the lower house’s no-confidence motion by just three votes. He had secured a more comfortable victory in a confidence vote at the Senate earlier in the day.

The outcome of the highly uncertain votes attested to Mr. Berlusconi’s uncanny ability to survive, even when nearly all indications pointed to a government collapse.

He was weakened from a year dominated by sex scandals, corruption charges against some of his aides and a breakup with a close ally that had put into question whether he could still muster a parliamentary majority.

But the 74-year-old battled back, succeeding in swaying a few crucial lawmakers to vote in his favor and pressing the case that stability trumped political infighting at a time of economic crisis. The results were closely watched as Italy has a high public debt level and slow growth.

The outcome marked a victory for Mr. Berlusconi over the onetime ally who has become his most bitter rival, Gianfranco Fini. By contrast, it dealt a blow to Mr. Fini’s ambitions to replace Mr. Berlusconi as conservative leader, at least in the short term.

Ironically, it was Mr. Fini in his capacity as speaker of the lower house who announced the result: 314-311 in favor of the government. Applause broke out and Mr. Fini quickly ended the session.

However, the political future remains uncertain as Mr. Berlusconi can no longer count on a solid majority in parliament. Tuesday’s victory was obtained thanks to the votes of a handful of swing lawmakers, including some close to Mr. Fini, who changed their minds at the last minute.

Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called the result a “Pyrrhic victory.”

Minutes after the results of the vote were read, talks began among Mr. Berlusconi’s allies over how to broaden the government’s majority, possibly to include the swing lawmakers or small parliamentary groups.

Mr. Fini acknowledged defeat, saying the outcome was made more painful by the defections of three of his lawmakers. He said future weeks would show if Mr. Berlusconi would be able to turn his “numerical victory” into political capital. Some called for Mr. Fini’s resignation as house speaker.

The down-to-the-wire vote capped hours of tension inside and outside parliament.

Three pregnant women whose presence had been in doubt until the last minute showed up and were among the first to cast their votes, all against Mr. Berlusconi, to the applause of their allies. One of them arrived by ambulance, another in a wheelchair. As undecided lawmakers were called to cast their vote, some in the house cheered them on, while others jeered.

The scuffles that forced the brief suspension of voting broke out as one of Mr. Fini’s defectors announced her vote in favor of Mr. Berlusconi.

Outside parliament, thousands of students, some of them downing beers as they marched, smashed shop windows, destroyed bank ATMs and set at least three vehicles on fire. At one point they even entered a bank, prompting staffers to try to barricade themselves inside.

Police fired tear gas as the protesters neared Mr. Berlusconi’s residence.

Protests also took place elsewhere in Italy: In Palermo, students blocked the train station and occupied the airport; in Turin thousands marched through the city center, news reports said.

Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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