Italy’s Berlusconi easily wins confidence vote, bolstering his government

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Italy’s Berlusconi wins confidence vote

ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi won a confidence vote Wednesday night in the Chamber of Deputies by a wide margin, staving off, at least for now, the specter of early elections.

Berlusconi had staked his coalition’s survival on the outcome of the vote in the lower chamber of Parliament. He garnered 342 votes in favor of his government compared to 275 votes against, with 3 abstentions.

Shaken by a nasty break with one of his two main coalition partners over the summer, Berlusconi called the vote to confirm he could still command a comfortable majority in the legislature, which is halfway through its five-year term.

In his pitch to the Chamber before the vote, he argued that Italy must be spared political instability at a time of financial woes. Had Berlusconi lost the vote Wednesday, which happened to be his 74th birthday, he would have been obliged to resign, paving the way for possible early elections.

Among those voting yes on the confidence motion were at least some of the lawmakers loyal to Gianfranco Fini, the right-wing leader who broke with Berlusconi this summer after months of nasty bickering over how much power the premier should wield among his chief allies.

Following days of wooing by Berlusconi aides, some centrists outside the government’s coalition also sided with the premier in the confidence vote roll call.

But the vote had barely been tallied when Berlusconi’s chief ally, Umberto Bossi, grumbled that it would have been better to go the early elections route.

Opinion surveys have showed Bossi’s anti-immigrant Northern League riding a wave of popularity in its northern Italian base, while Berlusconi’s popularity has been slipping in the polls.

“It’s better to take the high road in life, and the high road is elections,” Bossi told reporters after Berlusconi’s government won the confidence motion. “Berlusconi didn’t want elections and now we’re at this point.”

Meanwhile, Fini announced he was forging ahead with plans to start a new center-right party. Aides to Fini said last week that the new party would likely be formed by the start of next year.

The largely rudderless center-left opposition has been unable to capitalize on the squabbling in the government majority and hasn’t clamored for a new appointment at the polls far ahead of the 2013 due date.

Nichi Vendola, an up-and-coming left-wing leader, contended that, despite the confidence vote victory, Italy’s political situation could “precipitate from one moment to the next.”

But Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, a staunch supporter of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, said by securing the confidence vote “Berlusconi goes on” stronger than before.

Berlusconi told the Chamber that it was in “our country’s absolute interest not to risk a period of instability during the crisis, which isn’t over yet.”

He wants to use the rest of the legislature’s term to push for tax reform, measures to fight organized crime and illegal immigration, and a politically delicate plan to overhaul the justice system.

Berlusconi said the justice system, notoriously slow, must be sped up. He said the country’s top officials must receive immunity from prosecution — a contentious issue, since he is the defendant in two trials in Milan that have been put on hold thanks to a government measure.

Berlusconi, who has a history of legal woes stemming from his media empire in Milan, has always said he is the innocent victim of politically driven magistrates.

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