ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi survived a confidence vote in Italy's Senate on Tuesday, but another riskier vote follows in the lower house, where a few swing lawmakers will determine his political fate.
The votes — a dramatic showdown that gripped the nation — were called following a spate of sex scandals and political infighting that cost Berlusconi support and threw into question whether he could still muster a parliamentary majority.
Berlusconi had been expected to win the Senate vote on a motion in support of the government brought by his allies. The vote was 162-135 with 11 abstentions.
But the risk lies in the lower Chamber of Deputies, where Berlusconi's split with longtime ally and chamber speaker Gianfranco Fini has potentially deprived him of a majority. That vote, scheduled for 1200 GMT (7 a.m. EST), was preceded by a tense debate that saw Berlusconi storm out of the chamber.
The 74-year-old Berlusconi has been weakened by the breakup with Fini, allegations he partied with prostitutes and long-standing criticism that he has used his three terms as premier to pass laws to help shield him from his legal woes.
The lower house vote could bring down his government and possibly end his nearly two decades in power.
But Berlusconi has defied critics before, surviving corruption scandals and legal problems to become Italy's longest serving premier. He has confidently insisted he'll pull off a win in both houses Tuesday and flatly rejected Fini's call to resign.
The votes were being held in a tense climate, with Rome's historic center — where parliament buildings and the premier's office are located — under a heavy police presence. Scores of anti-Berlusconi demonstrations were under way in cities across the country to coincide with the votes: in Palermo, students blocked the train station and occupied the airport; in Turin thousands marched through the city center, news reports said.
If Berlusconi wins both votes, he is assured of more time in office, even though a razor-thin majority is no guarantee of stability. If he loses the lower house, he has to resign — a move that might lead to early elections.
With a very close vote in the 630-member lower house, both factions were frantically counting the votes and trying to close ranks, as every head might count.
During the debate ahead of the vote, Berlusconi and several of his allies walked out of the chamber after Antonio Di Pietro, a fierce Berlusconi critic, demanded he turn himself over to prosecutors. Di Pietro made a formal complaint last week alleging Berlusconi was trying to buy votes, spurring an investigation by Rome magistrates.
Berlusconi has rejected any such accusations, but appeared to have succeeded to persuade at least a few lawmakers to not vote against him.
The Fini camp appeared less than rock-solid, with some lawmakers expressing doubt about voting against the government, fearing the consequences of provoking a political crisis with no resolution in sight.
On Monday, Berlusconi appeared before both houses of parliament to press his case that lawmakers should continue to support his government.
He insisted that his government had successfully protected Italy from becoming engulfed by the eurozone's debt crisis. He warned they risked plunging Italy into financial instability at a time of crisis if they force him to step down and end Italy's 62nd postwar government.
The premier also offered to negotiate a new legislative agenda that would allow the government to survive until parliamentary elections are held in 2013. He promised to shuffle his Cabinet to give positions to those forces who support him.