Silvio Berlusconi Narrowly Survives Confidence Vote

The Italian prime minister had been under investigation for using $530,000 in state funds to send a Bulgarian starlet to the Venice Film Festival to collect an award created for her.

Italian media mogul prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, narrowly survived the most severe crisis of his political career Tuesday when he dramatically won a confidence vote in the 630-member chamber of deputies buy a mere three votes.


Berlusconi would have been forced to resign if he had lost the vote, which sparked catcalls and several minor scuffles on the floor of parliament as at least a dozen lawmakers changed votes one way or the other when their name was called.

Shares in Mediaset, the broadcast and film production giant Berlusconi controls, reacted favorably to the news, jumping 8% over the span of a few minutes after the vote became official and edging upward from there, trading late in the day at €4.69 ($6.20). The shares had been hurt in recent months on speculation that Berlusconi's attention was focused on his political problems rather than the company's well being.

The final 314-to-311 tally was announced by a visibly exhausted Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the lower house and a former Berlusconi ally who helped spark the current crisis by calling for Berlusconi to resign five weeks ago.

The vote was high political drama in Italy. Three female lawmakers in the late stages of pregnancy all showed up to vote against doctor's orders -- all of them voting against the 74-year-old Berlusconi. One arrived by ambulance, another was pushed in a wheelchair, and a third, Federica Mogherini, announced when she cast her vote that she would stay in the chamber to see the final result "unless my water breaks."

Another female deputy, Katia Polidori, a Fini supporter who unexpectedly switched sides to support Berlusconi, cast her vote amid insults alleging she had been "bought and paid for" by allies of the billionaire prime minister.

To protect against the threat of possible violence, police and military officials circled both the parliament and the Senate. But protesters gathered at both buildings, throwing rocks, paint, and eggs and at several points clashing with law enforcement officials. There were protests in other cities as well, with at least one protester in Milan reportedly heading to the hospital after a brawl with police.

Berlusconi has seen his support levels erode in recent months because of a series of influence peddling and sex scandals, a weak economy, several pending lawsuits, and the defection of Fini and several other key allies.

Among the most recent scandals are charges that Berlusconi used more than $500,000 in state funds to pay for Bulgarian starlet Michelle Bonev to attend this year's Venice Film Festival amid insistence from Berlusconi that she receive "some kind of award." Italian media has said that Bonev is a "close personal friend" of the prime minister's.

With the narrow victory, Berlusconi will hold onto power -- for at least a few months. The prime minister promised to reshuffle his cabinet and is negotiating a new legislative agenda in order to cement his support base. But critics charged that the charges of vote buying would undermine Berlusconi's mandate, and they noted that if he fails to increase his support, it would require a walkout by just a small handful of lawmakers to again bring the government to its knees.

Also on Tuesday, Berlusconi won an earlier confidence vote in the Senate 162 votes to 135, with 18 Senators either absent or abstaining. But that vote was less of a surprise, because Berlusconi retained a majority there despite the recent problems.