Berlusconi's fate could hang by a single vote

Premier hopes late surge will beat vital no-confidence motion

Italian opposition MPs are counting down the hours until tomorrow's confidence vote that could allow them to put Silvio Berlusconi's lame-duck government out of its misery in time for Christmas – and possibly boot the beleaguered tycoon-premier into the political outer darkness.

But the deal was by no means sealed last night, as political analysts suggested that frantic last-minute parliamentary mudslinging and deal-broking could mean that Mr Berlusconi would survive by as narrow a margin as a single vote. Claims of vote-rigging and doubt over whether three heavily pregnant deputies expected to oppose the government would be able to attend underlined that the 74-year-old mogul-premier's fate is far from sealed.

The Prime Minister is expected to give a key campaigning speech in the Senate this morning, where he should win the first confidence vote. But a similar vote in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, looks much tighter. It was suggested yesterday that with luck Mr Berlusconi could scrape through by 314-313 votes.

Mr Berlusconi says he is confident of winning a majority despite the defection of former ally Gianfranco Fini, who has taken around 40 centre-right MPs with him. Mr Fini and centre-left parties say they have enough votes in the bag to sink the government. Yesterday Mr Fini said: "I don't have a crystal ball but I don't believe that Berlusconi will win the vote."

If the government does fall, Mr Berlusconi will be obliged to offer his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano.

The head of state would then consult with party leaders and the speakers of both houses in an attempt to form a new coalition that could command a majority in each.

Some opponents might abstain though, rather than vote again the government, for fear of creating damaging political confusion at a time of financial crisis.

One possibility is that a less contentious member of the government, such as the Economics Minister, Giulio Tremonti, would temporarily take the reins, possibly under a government of national unity. This would likely change the controversial electoral system and aim to keep a firm grip on Italy's public finances.

James Walston, politics professor of the American University in Rome, predicted that events would pave the way for March elections. "If no one can form a government in a few days, the most likely scenario is that early elections will be called," he said. "The bookmakers' favourite date is 27 March. Unless something dramatic happens over the next few days, I would put my money on that outcome as well."

Mr Berlusconi could in theory make a return in spring elections, but with his popularity at an all-time low, and his health said to be failing, his hold on Italian politics is looking weaker all the time.

There has even been talk of the Prime Minister packing his bags and repertoire of crass jokes and setting up camp in the foreign ministry in the unlikely role of Italy's most senior diplomat. By retaining a ministerial role, Mr Berlusconi would still be shielded from corruption charges.

In a television interview on the Rai Tre channel, Mr Fini mocked the Prime Minister. "Mr Berlusconi doesn't want to govern, he only wants to stay in Palazzo Chigi [the premier's official residence]. And more than that, he wants to stay while there's the legitimate impediment that's vital for him to avoid the trials," he said.

The Prime Minister will have been buoyed by news on Friday that the Constitutional Court has postponed until the new year its verdict on the constitutionality of the "legitimate impediment law" that allows serving ministers to avoid court appearances. The decision had been due on the same day as the confidence votes. The newly elected Constitutional Court president, Ugo De Siervo, said the judges needed to examine the matter "in a more tranquil atmosphere".

Suggestions of corruption have even tainted tomorrow's confidence vote. The parliamentary anti-corruption campaigner Antonio Di Pietro has claimed there have been attempts to buy some wavering MPs with financial inducements and lucrative job offers, which amounted to "criminally significant acts" that "should never occur in a civilised country''.

The government has denied the allegations.