Riots in Rome as Silvio Berlusconi survives vital confidence vote

VIOLENCE erupted on the streets of Rome yesterday after prime minister Silvio Berlusconi won back-to-back confidence votes in the Italian parliament, narrowly surviving one of the toughest fights of his political career. Protests greeted his victory, as rioters torched cars, smashed windows and clashed with police.

• Vehicles were set alight by protesters angry after Silvio Berlusconi won crucial confidence votes. Picture: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Riot police fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowds after earlier trying to cordon off the area around parliament. Clouds of tear gas and flares engulfed some streets, shops full of Christmas goods hurriedly closed down and employees at one bank cowered in fear as waves of stone-throwing youths swept by. Dozens of people were injured and more than 40 arrested as riot police and protesters fought running battles.

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Tensions inside parliament's lower house had boiled over earlier in the day, as politicians pushed and shoved each other, forcing a brief suspension in the voting. Mr Berlusconi survived the lower house's no-confidence motion by just three votes after a more comfortable victory in the Senate earlier in the day.

The outcome attested to Mr Berlusconi's uncanny ability to survive, even when nearly all indications pointed to a government collapse. Yet the narrow margin also indicated he will have a difficult time governing.

Mr Berlusconi had been weakened after a year dominated by sex scandals, corruption charges against some of his aides and a break-up with a close political ally. But he battled back, swaying a few crucial politicians to vote in his favour and pressing the case that stability trumped political infighting at a time of economic crisis. Italy has high public debt level and slow growth, and the financial markets have been concerned that it could be dragged into Europe's debt mire.

The outcome marked a victory for Mr Berlusconi over the one-time ally who has become his most bitter rival, Gianfranco Fini, and dealt a blow to Mr Fini's ambitions to replace Mr Berlusconi as conservative leader.

Ironically, it was Mr Fini, in his capacity as Speaker of the lower house, who announced the result: 314-311 in favour of the government.

However, Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called the result a "Pyrrhic victory".

The down-to-the-wire vote capped hours of tension inside and outside parliament.

Three pregnant women whose presence had been in doubt showed up and were among the first to cast their votes, all against Mr Berlusconi, to the applause of their allies. One arrived by ambulance, another in a wheelchair.Scuffles broke out as one of Mr Fini's defectors announced her vote in favour of Mr Berlusconi, forcing a brief suspension of voting.

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Minutes after the results were announced, talks began among Mr Berlusconi's allies over how to broaden the government's majority, possibly to include the swing lawmakers or small parliamentary groups.

Outside parliament, hundreds of students smashed shop windows, destroyed bank ATMs and set at least three vehicles on fire. They even entered a bank, prompting staff to try to barricade themselves inside.

Police fired tear gas as the protesters neared Mr Berlusconi's residence.

Along the central Via del Corso, charred caf seats and overturned cobblestones littered the streets as protesters moved away from parliament. About 100 moved to a nearby piazza, Christmas-decked stores closing as panicked shopkeepers watched in fear.

At the central Piazza del Popolo, firefighters worked to douse the handful of cars set alight, while protesters threw stones onto passers-by from a terraced park on the hill above.

In Palermo, students blocked the train station and occupied the airport, while in Turin thousands marched through the city centre, news reports said.