Italy’s embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday won a vote of confidence in parliament, saving his centre-right government from collapse.
The government took the votes of 342 deputies, 33 more than it needed to prevail.
A breakaway group from Berlusconi’s coalition had said earlier it would back him in the vote, making it almost certain he would win.
“We will not neglect our duty, we want to carry on till the end of the parliamentary term” ending in 2013, said Italo Bocchino, parliamentary leader of the dissident group headed by lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini.
Deprived of a parliamentary majority following months of bitter infighting, which culminated with Fini leaving the coalition in July with 34 deputies and 10 senators, Berlusconi risked having to step down if he lost the vote.
“The numbers are really tight. The path is narrow,” the leader of the Northern League party and Berlusconi’s chief coalition partner Umberto Bossi said, noting the importance of Fini’s supporters.
The website of the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera agreed, highlighting that Fini’s supporters had been “decisive”.
Dissidents fall in line
The dissidents fell in line after Berlusconi delivered a conciliatory speech giving details of a new five-point government plan, including widespread tax cuts, a reform of the legal system and other inducements aimed at attracting support, but insisted on the need to avoid deepening the country’s debt burden.
Speaking on his 74th birthday, Berlusconi, whose term runs until 2013, said national cohesion had unravelled and needed to be stitched back together again while politics based on personal attacks had to end.
“We have to start again without making cheap compromises. Each one must fulfil his role with responsibility and respect his opponent without being divisive,” said Berlusconi, referring to the spat with Fini.
“I see too much hate, hate which can strengthen the hand of subversion,” said the media billionaire, who needed hospital treatment last year after he was attacked in the street.
He also said illegal immigration, on which he and Fini have disagreed, had dropped by 88 percent under his watch and he took credit for successes in the fight against the Mafia.
In the speech lasting just under an hour, regularly interrupted by applause from his supporters, Berlusconi admitted he was “bitter” over the divisions within his coalition while acknowledging that the debate over his policies was legitimate and necessary.
On the hot topic of the legal system, Berlusconi reiterated his plan to set time limits on trials that could halt up to half of the cases currently before the country’s main courts.
Critics say the proposed law is designed to halt two corruption cases brought against the prime minister.
“There is no democracy and good government without a strong and free parliament,” said the prime minister, responding to charges he had promised political favours to some lawmakers to help shore up his majority.
Berlusconi also announced an investment plan of 21 billion euros (28.6 billion dollars) for the economically depressed south, with the notable aim of completing by 2013 a major motorway that has provoked much political debate over 40 years.
According to recent polls, voter confidence in Berlusconi and his government is at an all-time low since his election in 2008.