Published November 17, 2014
ROME (AP) — Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday survived his first test in parliament since the breakup with a powerful ally, a victory that leaves his conservative government safely in place at least until after the summer.
But the vote also exposed the erosion of Berlusconi's majority after the split with longtime ally Gianfranco Fini, possibly giving the Italian leader a taste of troubles to come after the holiday break.
In a highly-anticipated vote in the lower house of parliament, Berlusconi's lawmakers defeated an opposition censure motion against a government official implicated in a corruption scandal.
The 299-229 vote was parliament's last political significant act until September. It was seen as a test of strength for Berlusconi.
"This is a signal that we're staying on and that there is no election now," said Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League government party and, at this point, Berlusconi's staunchest partner.
Lawmakers loyal to Fini abstained from the voting. Fini's 33 deputies formed their own breakaway parliamentary group in the wake of the breakup, potentially depriving Berlusconi's coalition of a majority in the lower house.
Wednesday's decision to abstain kept Berlusconi afloat but also showed that the premier's grip is loosening and gave a measure of Fini's clout.
Fini's lawmakers sided with a group of centrist and moderate deputies, bringing the number of abstentions to 75. That is a significant force in the 630-member lower house, and there has been speculation that the lawmakers would merge into a single party.
Abstaining "is quite enough to signal that this is a major problem in Berlusconi's majority. What is going to happen next is very difficult to foretell," said Giovanni Orsina, political science professor at Rome's LUISS university.
"Maybe they will still find a way to work together," he said, "or maybe their roads are going to get more and more separated, and this means that there is a possibility ... of an early dissolution of parliament and elections."
Berlusconi's spectacular split with Fini played out with venomous accusations on both sides. Fini, currently serving as speaker of the lower house, had been an ally since Berlusconi's entry into politics 16 years ago and is the co-founder of the People of Freedom party.
The two had bickered for months on a number of issues, most notably morality in politics in the wake of scandals hitting coalition members. Fini has taken a harsher stance than Berlusconi, demanding that public officials suspected of corruption resign.
Wednesday's censure motion targeted Justice Ministry Undersecretary Giacomo Caliendo, who has been entangled in a probe looking into a secret association of powerful figures allegedly seeking to influence politics and justice. Caliendo has denied wrongdoing, and has refused to resign.
Last week, Berlusconi accused Fini of mounting an opposition from within and working against the government, effectively expelling him from the party. Fini said Berlusconi behaved more like a manager than a premier and claimed the right to dissent from him.
For all his acrimonious words, Fini says his lawmakers will support the government when it carries out the joint electoral platform under which the coalition was voted into power in 2008. But he says they will oppose it when they consider its policies unjust or against the common good.
Berlusconi has issued reassurances that his government is stable. But in recent days he has also warned that he will push for early elections at the first sign of trouble.
In case of a government collapse, the president of the republic might seek to put a caretaker government in place or call early elections.
Italian analysts say that if the election is held very soon Berlusconi might benefit because this would leave little time for Fini to organize his challenge. The main leftist opposition party is also seen as a weak contender.
The government's term ends in 2013.