Italian Premier Survives No-Confidence Vote, Barely

Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, but with the slimmest of margins. His center-right government defeated the opposition motion by just three votes, amid widespread media reports of parliamentarians being offered money and business opportunities, or even being intimidated into changing their votes.

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Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, survived a no-confidence vote in parliament today - barely. His center-right government defeated the opposition motion by three votes, but his victory was marred by allegations of vote buying and violent protests outside parliament.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Man: (Shouting in Italian)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The baroque squares of Rome look like scenes of guerrilla warfare. White tear gas and orange flares engulf streets as riot police try to disperse demonstrators. Rome was lit up by police vans set on fire. At 6 p.m. it was eerily quiet. Streets were covered with debris. Lia Seberini(ph) is a middle-aged woman who saw it all.

Ms. LIA SEBERINI: (Speaking Italian)

POGGIOLI: All hell broke out, she said. It looked like war. Seberini was dismayed by the damage, but equally upset with the vote result in parliament. I'm not happy, she said. This government must go. It hasn't done anything. We're all getting poor. Taxes are going up. We can't make it to the end of the month.

While violence broke out on the streets, tensions exploded inside the lower house, as lawmakers pushed and shoved each other, forcing a brief suspension. Before casting their votes, deputies were each given time to explain their actions. The most scathing was Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate who says Berlusconi will do anything to avoid his trials for corruption.

Mr. ANTONIO DI PIETRO (Former Magistrate, Italy): (through translator) Why don't you turn yourself in like an ordinary Noriega and be judged by your peers.

POGGIOLI: Suddenly, Berlusconi got up to leave.

Mr. DI PIETRO: (through translator) You coward. Do not flee. Look at that - a prime minister who's escaping, going off to hide in the Bahamas.

POGGIOLI: Today's vote capped a year of party infighting, corruption cases and sex scandals that had eroded Berlusconi's hold on power. Today, Berlusconi survived thanks to a handful of deputies who switched sides at the last minute. But despite his razor-thin victory, the fate of the government remains uncertain. Opposition leaders called the result a Pyrrhic victory. And most analysts believe the country will be forced to hold early elections in the spring.

Berlusconi also cropped up today in another U.S. cable released by WikiLeaks, which reveals concern over the media tycoon's attempt to censor the Internet. U.S. Ambassador David Thorne wrote that opponents of a government bill said it endangers free speech and is a threat to Italian democracy. Thorne warned the bill could set precedents that nations such as China could copy or cite as justification for their own crackdowns on free speech.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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