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Italy on edge as Berlusconi faces crucial vote

Italy's beleaguered prime minister faces crucial confidence vote that could bring down his government.

ROME // Italy was on tenterhooks on Tuesday as beleaguered Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faced a crucial confidence vote in parliament that could bring down his government.

Following a split between Berlusconi's ruling coalition and rebel deputies led by ex-ally Gianfranco Fini in July, the prime minister faces confidence motions in the upper and lower houses of parliament.

He appealed to Fini's supporters on Monday to vote for him, calling on them to show "responsibility" and saying: "Our internal divisions... are not at all insurmountable. We must unite for the good of Italy".

He asked his former partners not to "betray the mandate from our voters".

The 74-year-old also argued that a vote of no-confidence would be damaging for Italy given the current turbulence on eurozone financial markets.

He warned against the "political folly" of ousting him at such a time.

While Berlusconi has a safe majority in the Senate, he has been weakened by a string of sex and corruption scandals in recent years and his support in the Chamber of Deputies is less sure.

The result of the vote in the Chamber is expected at around 1300 GMT.

Anti-Berlusconi protesters are also planning to hold a series of rallies in central Rome to demand a change of government.

A protest by the main opposition Democratic Party on Saturday in the Italian capital drew tens of thousands of people.

"It's really too close to call," James Walston, professor of politics at the American University in Rome, said ahead of the vote.

"There have been desperate negotiations going on, because Berlusconi cannot afford not to be prime minister. He needs the protection it gives him from his current and possibly upcoming prosecutions," he added.

Should he lose either vote, Berlusconi will be forced to offer his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano, who will then decide whether an alternative centre-right majority can be formed.

If such a transition government is not feasible, Napolitano would have to dissolve parliament and call early elections.

Berlusconi on Monday also appealed to the opposition Union of the Centre (UDC) party -- but the party said the prime minister first had to resign before talks on any new alliance could begin.

"If Berlusconi believes in uniting the moderates, he should resign before the confidence vote," UDC party leader Pier Ferdinando Casini said.

"He always thinks that everyone else is at fault," he added.

Over the last week, the government has lobbied wavering lawmakers intensively in the hope of persuading them to return to the fold.

Analysts are predicting a result as close as 314 votes for the government against 313 for the opposition.

If Berlusconi wins with such a tiny majority, Italy may have to go to elections before the government's mandate runs out in 2013 in order to prevent a paralysis of parliament.

KEY DATES IN BERLUSCONI'S POLITICAL CAREER

Here are some key dates that have marked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's political life:

March 1994: Billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi bursts onto the political scene, winning elections with his Forza Italia ("Go Italy") party after a series of corruption scandals badly damage Italy's political elites.

December 1994: Northern League party leader Umberto Bossi -- currently one of Berlusconi's few close allies -- pulls out of the coalition government following rows with the prime minister and forces Berlusconi to resign.

April 2001: British weekly The Economist comes out with an edition entitled "Why This Man is Unfit to Lead Italy," detailing corruption charges and alleged misuses of his media empire. Berlusconi calls the magazine "The Ecommunist".

May 2001: Berlusconi bounces back with an election win after a US-style campaign in which he signs a "Contract with Italians" live on television. He goes on to serve the longest stint as premier in Italian post-war history.

July 2003: Berlusconi causes international shockwaves after comments in the European Parliament in which he mockingly invites a German member of parliament who criticised him to play a concentration camp guard in a new Italian film.

April 2006: Berlusconi is narrowly defeated by a centre-left coalition called "The Union" that the prime minister nicknames "The Soviet Union". Former European Commission president Romano Prodi becomes Italy's new prime minister.

January 2007: Berlusconi's wife demands a public apology after he flirts with one of his deputies.

April 2008: Berlusconi wins his third election victory after the sudden collapse of Prodi's government with his new People of Freedom party amid stagnation in the Italian economy and a garbage crisis in Naples.

April 2009: During a photoshoot of world leaders in Buckingham Palace, Berlusconi shouts "Mr Obama!" to catch the US president's attention. Queen Elizabeth II turns round and says: "What is it? Why does he have to shout?"

May 2009: Berlusconi's wife says she can no longer remain married to her husband after scandalous allegations about affairs.

November 2010: Speaker of parliament Gianfranco Fini breaks up his long-term alliance with Berlusconi after a series of angry disputes, pulling his four ministers out of the government and triggering the December 14 confidence vote.