Italy's Prodi wins confidence vote

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ROME -- Romano Prodi cleared his last significant hurdle before officially taking the reigns of Italy's 62nd government since World War II on Wednesday, winning a confidence vote exactly a week after a different vote had forced him to resign.

The good news for Prodi came as the leader's chief political rival -- three-time Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi -- faced increasing dissention within the ranks of his opposition coalition that could lead the billionaire to back away from his political role, ostensibly to concentrate on the Mediaset broadcasting giant he controls.

Prodi's victory with the confidence vote was largely expected. In the Senate, the former European Commission president tallied 162 votes, two more than needed for his confirmation. Last week, he received just 158 votes on a security measure, forcing him to tender his resignation.

Prodi still must pass a similar vote in the parliament's lower house Friday, but approval there is considered automatic, given the ruling coalition's cushion of more than 30 votes.

The problems inside Berlusconi's coalition are more of a surprise. Over the weekend, Senator Marco Follini, Berlusconi's former deputy prime minister, announced he would back Prodi in the confidence vote. Then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Pier Ferdinando Casini, president of the lower house of parliament during Berlusconi's five-year tenure as prime minister and a leading member of the media mogul's coalition, said the time had come for 70-year-old Berlusconi to step aside and let someone else head the coalition.

In January, Berlusconi appeared to do just that, appointing longtime ally Gianfranco Fini as his political successor. But when Prodi's government collapsed last week, Berlusconi leapt back into the leadership role when it briefly appeared possible that Prodi's problems could hand power back to Berlusconi's allies.

As chances for such a switch faded, criticism of Berlusconi among his allies increased. If Berlusconi -- who has suffered from well-documented health problems over the last year -- does indeed retire from the political scene, he has indicated that he will dedicate his energies to Fininvest, the holding company that controls Mediaset, film distributor Medusa, publisher Mondadori and several other media and communications holdings.
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