Berlusconi wins vote of confidence from Senate

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI'S right- wing government last night narrowly won the crucial confidence vote in the Senate, thanks to the tactical absence of five opposition Senators. The government, which includes the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance and the federalist Northern League, was voted in by 159 to 153, with two abstentions. An abstention is regarded as a vote against, in the Senate.

The government, which lacked an absolute majority in the upper house, went through an hour of suspense as the Senators were called out, one by one, to cast their votes. On Mr Berlusconi's own Fourth Channel television station, a table in a corner of the screen kept count, with the 'no' votes sometimes outstripping the 'yes' votes. The excited commentator made no attempt to be impartial and assured viewers that 'good sense will prevail.'

For Mr Berlusconi, who whiled away the time chatting with Senators, it must have been a gripping evening: while the voting was in progress, his football team, Milan, was playing Barcelona in the European Cup Final in Athens.

Twelve of the 326 Senators were absent, mostly through illness. But five, including four from the opposition Popular Party (PPI), the former Christian Democrats, left the Chamber during the vote, to bring down the number needed for the quorum, and prevent the government from being defeated. They were instantly suspended from their party.

The confidence debate continues today in the Chamber of Deputies, which will vote tomorrow. But there, the government has a comfortable majority, and Mr Berlusconi is now effectively assured of office.

Earlier, he wound up the three- day debate using the charm for which he is famous, to flatter and placate sceptics and political opponents, insisting repeatedly that he respected their views. But he also used the stick.

'To get a new majority there will have to be new elections', he warned, to thunderous applause from supporters. The majority of the electorate had voted for this coalition, he reminded them. 'It is up to us to decide to confirm or overturn that verdict.'

Meanwhile, leaders of his coalition worked on Senators who might support them, in particular the 11 life Senators - former presidents, prime ministers and ultra- distinguished citizens - and members of the Popular Party.

There was a lunch of pasta with seafood sauce, followed by steamed sea bass, given for the life Senators by Carlo Scognamiglio, president of the Senate, and a member of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Merely a courtesy, nothing political, reporters were told.

Whatever it was, the life Senators stayed divided. Giulio Andreotti, disgraced seven-times prime minister and Francesco de Martino, former Socialist leader, voted against. Former president Francesco Cossiga and - apparently - Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli voted for, while Giovanni Spadolini, former prime minister and speaker of the Senate, abstained.

There were rumours of arm- twisting on PPI members - one PPI senator claimed he had been quietly offered the chairmanship of a parliamentary commission, if he would support the government. The PPI in a long and agonised session on Monday night agreed not to vote for the government, unless Mr Berlusconi dropped the neo-Fascists from his coalition, sold his television networks and introduce a second round of voting in general elections.

Their floor leader, Nicola Mancino, said after Mr Berlusconi's speech that he had not responded to these demands. 'We will not change our position,' he insisted.

Mr Berlusconi confessed at the beginning of his speech that he had followed the debate with 'a certain trepidation'. Answering critics, he said that he wanted 'to be clear to the point of pernickertiness'. He said that he would not go back on promises made during the election campaign, which he regarded as a pact with the voters.

He gave special prominence to his promise to create a million jobs within two, or two-and a-half years of taking office.