, ROME, Dec 14 – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday scraped through a crucial confidence vote in parliament, overcoming one of the most serious crises in his 16-year political career.
Berlusconi won with a razor-thin majority, as 314 lawmakers voted in his favour with 311 against and two abstentions in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies lower house.
His government earlier won a comfortable majority in the Senate.
Tens of thousands of anti-Berlusconi protesters meanwhile marched through Italy’s biggest cities. Some of the protesters in Rome set off smoke flares, hurled bottles and threw firecrackers, while police fired tear gas.
"Summing up what’s wrong with Berlusconi would be a very long list! But basically he hasn’t managed to cope with the economic crisis," said Andrea, a school pupil taking part in the protest in Rome.
Silvia, a teacher, said: "I don’t see a future for young people."
The vote followed heated debates in both chambers of parliament and a fight broke out between some supporters and opponents of the prime minister in the tense minutes before the announcement of the result in the lower house.
Berlusconi earlier voiced confidence in a victorious outcome as he arrived in parliament and said he "absolutely excluded" his resignation, demanded by former allies from his centre-right coalition who rebelled against him.
Berlusconi first launched himself onto a corruption-ridden political scene with an election win in 1994. He has since gone on two more elections in 2001 and 2008, brushing off a series of sex and graft scandals along the way.
The government’s current mandate is set to run out in 2013 but some analysts have argued that Italy will now still have to hold early parliamentary elections because the government’s narrow majority could paralyse parliament.
"This is a country that is tired and wants change," the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani, said ahead of the vote.
Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption judge and leader of the Italy of Values party, said Berlusconi’s "papier-mache empire" was finished.
"Go to the Bahamas! This is what awaits you: giving yourself up to the judiciary or fleeing," Di Pietro shouted at Berlusconi.
But Fabrizio Cicchitto, the leader of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party in the lower house, said: "Berlusconi’s story is not over."
The confidence vote followed a bitter split within the ruling coalition after the rebellion earlier this year of Berlusconi’s once-loyal ally Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of parliament, along with around 40 lawmakers.
Berlusconi had appealed to Fini’s supporters on Monday, calling on them to show "responsibility" and saying: "We must unite for the good of Italy."
He asked his former partners not to "betray the mandate from our voters."
The 74-year-old also argued that a vote of no-confidence would be damaging for Italy given the current turbulence on eurozone financial markets.
He warned against the "political folly" of ousting him at such a time.
"Berlusconi: The Day of Truth," read a headline in La Repubblica, while Corriere Della Sera said the government was "on the razor’s edge."
"Parliament will today probably finalise the collapse of the structure of centre-right coalitions for 16 years — the alliance between Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini," Corriere della Sera said in an editorial.
La Repubblica criticised Berlusconi’s attempt to rally his former allies from the centre-right, saying: "It’s a little prayer to try and survive another bit with the illusion of still having a government, a majority."