Riot police clashed with protesters last night in Rome's worst violence for years after Italy's tainted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly won a confidence vote that saved his government from collapse.
Despite a damning wave of sleaze scandals and new WikiLeaks allegations about his business dealings, the premier survived the greatest challenge to his hold on power by just three votes, sparking fights inside parliament amid claims of vote rigging.
Outside, the authorities blocked off the centre of Rome after masked demonstrators threw flares at the Senate in protest. More than 100 people were injured, including 60 police officers, as protesters set cars alight and hurled cobblestones at police. By the evening 40 protesters had been taken into police custody. Thousands more took part in rallies across Italy, including one in Milan, where protesters broke into the stock exchange building.
The vote was a major blow for the combined opposition and rebel centre-right MPs who, despite mounting allegations, failed to unseat the 74-year-old premier after two dissidents swapped sides at the last moment. There were also claims that one of the decisive votes was obtained by threats. Mr Berlusconi's leader in the Senate, Maurizio Gasparri, was spotted sticking a finger up at a television image of the premier's defeated rival, Gianfranco Fini.
The conservative premier secured 314 votes in his favour with 311 against and two abstentions in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies lower house. His government had earlier won a comfortable majority in the upper house.
Before the vote, Mr Berlusconi had stressed the need to avoid bringing down his government in a time of economic and financial uncertainty. However, analysts at Italian bank UniCredit said political uncertainty would "only be dissipated in case of a clear majority".
Analysts predicted that the narrow majority would lead to continuing rocky government. "With a majority of three, and it might become less over time, it's extremely difficult to govern," said Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary history at the University of Florence.
The consensus emerging yesterday was that Mr Berlusconi's government would stagger on for now, but that fresh elections were likely in the new year, despite it having an official mandate till 2013. Thanks to Italy's fragmented and dysfunctional party political system, however, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mr Berlusconi could be re-elected then, as the head of the largest single grouping.
Mr Berlusconi is unlikely to heal the bitter rift between himself and the centre-right rebels led by lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini, his former coalition ally. "You can give us lessons on how to become rich, but certainly not on how to stop the political decay," Italo Bocchino, Mr Fini's top lieutenant, told the premier in parliament yesterday.
Mr Berlusconi's government has been accused of bribing wavering MPs to get vital last-minute votes – something it has denied. Fists flew in the chamber following insults aimed at Catia Polidori, one of Mr Fini's supporters who decided to vote with the government at the last moment.
Mr Fini's political standing has been severely dented after failing to bring down Mr Berlusconi. He split from his former ally after months of bickering over policy differences and unhappiness over Mr Berlusconi's sex and financial scandals. Former anti-corruption judge Antonio Di Pietro, who now heads the opposition Italy of Values party, told MPs that the Prime Minister "was not in politics to serve the country but only for his personal affairs"; an accusation underlined by fresh WikiLeaks claims that Mr Berlusconi's government deliberately set out to help the mogul's broadcast empire at the expense of arch-rival Sky Italia.
One historian, Ernesto Galli della Loggia, writing in Corriere della Sera, noted that Mr Berlusconi had merely shown his ability to win elections. He said that despite completely dominating Italian politics for the past 15 years, the billionaire mogul had achieved little of note for the country. Italy is the only European nation where the average person is poorer than he or she was 10 years ago.