By Nicole Winfield ,AP
ROME — Silvio Berlusconi made a stunning about-face Wednesday and threw his support behind the government of Premier Enrico Letta in a confidence vote, acknowledging defeat on the Senate floor after defections in his party robbed him of the backing he needed to bring down the government.
The three-time premier took the floor in an unexpected address after Letta made an impassioned plea to keep his 5-month-old left-right coalition alive.
“Italy needs a government that can produce structural and institutional reforms that the country needs to modernize,” Berlusconi said in his brief remarks. “We have decided, not without internal strife, to vote in confidence.”
The Senate then voted to back Letta 235-70 with 14 abstentions and one absence.
It was a major setback for Berlusconi, who over the weekend had demanded his five Cabinet ministers quit the government and bring it down, incensed at a vote planned Friday that could strip him of his Senate seat following his tax fraud conviction and four-year prison sentence.
But in a remarkable challenge to Berlusconi’s authority, several allies balked and said they would instead support Letta’s hybrid coalition. Italy’s finances are in a critical state, pressing economic measures must be passed and Italy’s president has insisted that a new electoral law be passed to avoid inconclusive results in any future general election.
The unusual show of defiance could signal that Berlusconi’s influence has seriously eroded after two decades leading Italy’s center-right and the main protagonist in Italy’s political scene. Some commentators have likened Berlusconi’s erratic and seemingly counterproductive reaction to the challenge to the desperate, fitful sparks of a candle going out.
But Berlusconi has endured numerous political setbacks in the past, only to re-emerge strong. For the first time ever, though, Berlusconi now has a definitive court sentence against him and the very real possibility that he could be barred from holding public office.
Heading into the confidence vote, the numbers were in flux. Dissenting Sen. Roberto Formigoni said some 25 Berlusconi allies had defected and signed on to support Letta, apparently enough to tip the balance in Letta’s favor in the 321-member chamber.
Rather than highlight the divisions and defections, Berlusconi instead threw in the towel and changed course. The Milan stock exchange gained nearly 2 percent on the announcement, which seemed to have caught the entire chamber by surprise since minutes earlier a party leader had said Berlusconi’s forces would vote against Letta.