Italy's lower house speaker, Gianfranco Fini, quit Prime Minister… (Tiziana Fabi / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from London — Italy's center-right government survived a vote of confidence Wednesday that nonetheless underscored Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's weakened political position after a key partner bolted from his ruling coalition last week.
After a rowdy debate in the lower house, lawmakers voted 229 to 299 on a measure that would have censured an undersecretary in Berlusconi's government. A victory by the opposition probably would have prompted the collapse of the prime minister's 2-year-old coalition government and a realignment of right-wing and centrist parties.
Berlusconi's survival was assured by the abstention of 75 lawmakers, including supporters of his former ally, Speaker Gianfranco Fini. The speaker quit the premier's coalition last week after a turbulent 16-year partnership and formed a new party, Future and Freedom for Italy, but his forces had signaled ahead of the vote that they were not yet inclined to bring down their former ally.
Heavy insults flew and a fight broke out between a former coalition member and a Berlusconi supporter during debate over the measure to censure Giacomo Caliendo. The Justice Ministry official faces accusations of corruption and forming a secret political group in an attempt to influence the judiciary.
"Is it possible that an undersecretary for Justice who is under investigation for association with a secret society doesn't resign? In a normal country he would resign immediately," cried Dario Franceschini, parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Party.
Antonio di Pietro of the Italy of Values party called for the resignation of Caliendo and Berlusconi in the name of "political hygiene," referring to the prime minister as "a new Nero."
Berlusconi's supporters expressed relief at the outcome.
"The motion is clearly an attack on the government, but we will carry on," said Marco Reguzzoni of the conservative Northern League, a key partner in Berlusconi's remaining coalition.
Wednesday's vote was the latest political struggle for a beleaguered government that has already seen the recent resignation of two ministers, both members of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party who were accused of corruption.
Disagreements over Berlusconi's ad hoc and populist style of government, gossip over his personal life and constant allegations of corruption dogged his 16-year political partnership with the more strait-laced Fini, who moved from neo-fascist to centrist politics to command substantial electoral support.
The two men famously clashed in parliament this year, with Fini contesting the 73-year-old premier's style of government and his dependency on the Northern League, with its anti-immigration and populist positions.
Berlusconi called on Fini to resign as speaker. Fini, 58, refused and broke away from the coalition with his supporters, though he pledged to back the government if it carried through with reforms promised during the 2008 election.
Parliament now will be on summer break until Sept. 8. In the meantime, some commentators suggested that early elections could be to Berlusconi's advantage, given that he would be fighting a still-evolving coalition under Fini's new Future and Freedom for Italy party. But others predicted a short life for Berlusconi's coalition in its present form.
A headline in the daily La Repubblica suggested that Wednesday's vote was a death knell for the government: "Caliendo is safe, but majority is no longer there."
Stobart is a news assistant in The Times' London Bureau.