World

Berlusconi survives, but Italy faces uncertain future

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Media captionPolice fired tear gas as cars were set on fire and demonstrators threw eggs, paint and stones at parliament buildings

As the tear gas clears and the casualties are counted after the worst rioting Rome has seen for years, Silvio Berlusconi is savouring victory in confidence votes in both houses of parliament.

But this may prove to be only a Pyrrhic victory - as he finds himself seriously weakened with a wafer-thin governing majority in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The country continues to flounder.

Once again, Mr Berlusconi has shown a canny instinct to survive. Predictions - in truth, more in the foreign than the Italian press - that Black Tuesday would mark the end of what is being called "Berlusconism" were proven wrong.

And although Italy was rife with rumours that some votes in parliament were traded for well-paying posts in government, the fact remains that Mr Berlusconi walked out of both houses of parliament the winner.

So what next? Speculation in such a turbulent situation as Italy's is a risky business. But the conclusion is inescapable that the defiant president of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini - for years Mr Berlusconi's partner in a political party and then in government - today suffered a crushing defeat.

Moderates wanted

The level of insults aimed at Mr Berlusconi by Mr Fini in recent days ("Berlusconi wants to stay in power solely to avoid the courts") means there can be no reconciliation between the two.

Image caption Mr Berlusconi now finds himself seriously weakened

Future and Freedom for Italy (FLI), the fledgling political party Mr Fini launched only months ago, split in two, sending votes back to Mr Berlusconi.

Moderation is the new watchword; in recent days Mr Berlusconi, looking ahead, toned down the rhetoric and said that, in a predicted government reshuffle, he will welcome moderates.

Negotiations for cabinet slots to replace the Fini faithful will begin with the Catholic moderate, Pierferdinando Casini.

Mr Casini, however, will be a tough bargainer and Mr Berlusconi's existing senior coalition partner, the Northern League, emerges stronger than ever.

The Northern League is continuing to lobby for early elections. But violence in the streets makes early elections a frightening prospect. Cutbacks in funding for universities, research institutes and schools remain a political tinder box.

Italy on hold

Mr Berlusconi faces a number of serious problems.

Necessary reforms - including reform of the electoral law made to measure by Mr Berlusconi that gave him a fat premium of deputies in parliament two and a half years ago - are unlikely, for every vote risks a new defeat for the government.

The country remains on hold. As the noted economist Mario Deaglio predicted on Monday, it is in danger of becoming little more than a museum stopover for tourists.

Rome also risks going down the same path followed by Athens, Lisbon and Dublin in recent months in losing financial credibility and having to pay higher interest rates to service its heavy debts.

Italy already has an accumulated public debt equivalent to more than a whole year's gross domestic product (GDP).

A final question is whether Mr Berlusconi will remain in the saddle long enough to replace Giorgio Napolitano as Italy's figurehead president in 2013. This has been his ambition for many years.

Italians are not due to go to the polls in a general election for another two and a half years - and a lot of water will flow down the River Tiber before then.