Riots break out in Rome after Silvio Berlusconi survives confidence votes

Hooded protesters set up flaming barricades as police baton-charge demonstrators in several parts of capital’s historic centre

Rioting today swept Rome after Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing government narrowly survived a censure motion in parliament amid claims he had bought his way out of trouble.

Hooded protesters set up flaming barricades as police baton-charged demonstrators in several parts of the capital’s historic centre. Cars and council vehicles were set alight, and officers fired teargas at protesters.

Initial reports spoke of at least 80 police and demonstrators injured in the disturbances.

Some demonstrators wielded iron bars and threw paving stones during the most violent disturbances seen in Rome for many years. The normally sedate city rang to the sound of exploding firecrackers hurled by protesters.

By mid-afternoon two thick columns of smoke rose from the remnants of a barricade at the entrance to the historic Piazza del Popolo. At least two protesters, and an unknown number of police officers, were hurt.

In at least one incident police were reported to have been surrounded and beaten with bars and sticks. Elsewhere, eyewitnesses said police had turned on young people who were nothing to do with the demonstration and had beaten them.

The protesters included students demonstrating against a recently-approved university reform bill, trade unionists, victims of last year’s earthquake in the Abruzzo region, and members of a revolutionary Marxist party.

Berlusconi had earlier survived a second of two votes of confidence in the Italian parliament, beating off a censure motion in the lower house by three votes.

The chamber of deputies voted against the resolution amid tumultuous scenes, with Berlusconi loyalists and rebels brawling inside the house.

The vote – 314 to 311 – was greeted by scenes of wild jubilation among the prime minister’s followers, who waved Italian flags and shouted in chorus for his former ally Gianfranco Fini to resign as the Speaker of the house.

Fini led the rebellion against the governing majority that brought it to the brink of collapse.

The opposition, joined by Fini’s mutineers, failed in their bid to unseat Berlusconi despite the efforts of three women deputies in the last stages of pregnancy who turned up to cast their votes against the government.

One, Giulia Cosenza, arrived in an ambulance. Another, Giulia Bongiorno, was helped into the chamber in a wheelchair.

The third, Federica Mogherini, of the Democratic party – Italy’s biggest opposition group – who is nine months pregnant, won a round of applause from her colleagues after fulfilling a promise to get to parliament “unless my water breaks”.

Police vans ringed Berlusconi’s official residence and blocked the street in front of his private home. Surveillance helicopters hovered overhead.

During the ballot in the lower house there was a scuffle between members of Fini’s faction and deputies belonging to the Northern League after a member of Fini’s group switched her vote to the government.

Four members of the lower chamber had to be separated after one of them apparently called the defecting politician a “whore”.

The prime minister and most of his followers had earlier walked out of the lower house in the final stages of the debate in protest at the heated rhetoric of Berlusconi’s most implacable enemy Antonio Di Pietro, the leader of the Italy of Principles party.

“We have a prime minister derided and ridiculed abroad,” Di Pietro said, going on to allege that Berlusconi had “bought opposition deputies to assure himself of a majority”. Two politicians from the Italy of Principles party switched their votes in the runup to the ballot, prompting opposition claims of foul play.

Earlier, Berlusconi survived a confidence vote in the senate, the upper house of the Italian parliament. His coalition won comfortably, by 162 votes to 135. But its path was smoothed by the rebel group loyal to Fini – which opted for tactical abstention – and by four opposition members who unexpectedly switched their votes at the last minute.

A senator who did so was promptly expelled by his party, the Sicilian-based Movement for Autonomies. His whip accused him of “one of the most squalid examples of this buying and selling [of votes] that has turned parliament into a sort of cattle market”.

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