Italians finally show they have had enough of Silvio Berlusconi

After 17 years, Italians finally seem to have had enough of Silvio Berlusconi.

Massive defeat in four referendums on nuclear energy, water privatisation and trial immunity for ministers last weekend were the biggest blow in an annus horribilis for the prime minister that many analysts say signals the start of a new era.

"He will not come back up. We cannot say how long the descent will take but certainly it will be fairly rapid," said Professor Gianfranco Pasquino of Bologna university.

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Some 27 million Italians voted overwhelmingly in favour of referendums that Berlusconi had urged them to boycott.

The Italian prime minister's frequent gaffes and off-colour jokes have given him a dubious international reputation that obscured his undoubted skills as a politician and communicator.

Since bursting on to the scene in 1994, filling a vacuum on the centre-right created by the destruction of the Christian Democrat party in a huge corruption scandal, he has dominated Italian politics and headed three governments.

But the magic has finally evaporated, leaving the 74-year-old premier battered from all sides and ridiculed for the "Bunga Bunga" sex parties that magistrates say he hosted with starlets and prostitutes.

The referendums, one of which - on trial immunity - was interpreted as a very personal vote against Berlusconi, followed shock defeats in local elections last month which included losing his hometown of Milan and Naples.

The defeats have greatly increased tensions between Berlusconi's PDL party and the pro-devolution Northern League on which he depends for survival.

Berlusconi is currently being kept afloat by the Northern League's own limited room for manoeuvre and disunity in the centre-left opposition, which is not keen for elections yet.

Open revolt is also unlikely in the PDL because it is built entirely around him, with no mechanism for succession.

But a wide spectrum of analysts predict early elections next spring, a year ahead of schedule, and suggest Berlusconi will not be the chosen leader of the centre-right.

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