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Italian government survives confidence vote after Berlusconi backtracks

The Italian government has comfortably survived a confidence vote. Silvio Berlusconi reversed plans to topple Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Wednesday afternoon.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta won the crucial confidence vote in the Senate on Wednesday, after Silvio Berlusconi abandoned his bid to topple the government. Of 305 senators who voted, 235 favored keeping the government and 70 opposed it.

In parliament's lower Chamber of Deputies, Letta was later able to secure an absolute majority with just his centre-left Democratic Party: 435 deputies supported Letta, with 162 against.

Berlusconi had intervened in the Senate ahead of the confidence vote that he had previously attempted to force by demanding that his five Cabinet ministers quit the government to bring it down.

The former premier's demands had come over the weekend in anticipation of a planned vote that could strip him of his Senate seat following his tax fraud conviction and a sentence of one year of house arrest or community service.

"Italy needs a government that can produce structural and institutional reforms that the country needs to modernize," Berlusconi eventually told the Senate on Wednesday: "We have decided, not without internal strife, to vote in confidence."

Berlusconi's reversal came after Prime Minister Enrico Letta made an impassioned plea to keep his 5-month-old government alive. Letta's chances of winning the vote had depended on dissenters from within Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PDL), who had called on their party to back the prime minister.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon and three-time former premier, had initially called for his party to vote against the motion of confidence. His surprise decision to reverse course appeared to have come rather spontaneously.

"We'll see what happens," Italian news agencies quoted him as saying on his way into the Senate on Wednesday. "We'll listen to Letta's speech and then decide."

'A fatal risk'

In his speech to the Senate Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Letta had hailed his 5-month-old government's successes and outlined his agenda to revive Italy's economy and turn around its record unemployment. He warned lawmakers that Italy "runs a risk, a fatal risk" depending on the choices they make.

"Give us your confidence to realize these objectives," Letta said to applause. "Give us your confidence for all that has been accomplished. A confidence vote that isn't against anyone, but a confidence vote for Italy and Italians."

Signs had begun to show as early as Tuesday that Letta would receive that vote. The high-ranking PDL member Angelino Alfano, interior minister in Letta's cobbled-together coalition Cabinet, said he was "firmly convinced that our party as a whole should vote confidence." Alfano also sat by Letta's side as the prime minister spoke on Wednesday.

Tax fraud conviction

Berlusconi had broken with Letta's administration on Saturday after coalition allies refused to block procedures to expel him from parliament because of a tax fraud conviction in August. A court sentenced Berlusconi to one year under house arrest or doing community service.

In February's elections, the center-left coalition led by Letta and his Democratic Party fell 20 seats short of a majority in the 321-member Senate and assumed office last spring in an awkward coalition with Berlusconi's right-wing bloc.

While teetering on political instability, Italy is also struggling to rein in its budget deficit. The unemployment rate has also returned to a record high of 12.2 percent, with youth unemployment also at a record level of 40.1 percent.

mkg/kms (AFP, dpa, AP)

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