Berlusconi's narrow win causes chaos, uncertainty

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Parts of Rome were smoldering Wednesday after protests against the razor-thin parliamentary vote that left controversial Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in office erupted into violence.

Rome's mayor Gianni Alemanno said earlier that the damage to shops, homes, cars, bank teller machines, and municipal infrastructure totaled at least 20 million euros.

Alemanno vowed to seek damages from those responsible, and, if possible, from the national government.

By sunset, at least 100 people -- including one police officer, who was reportedly overwhelmed by a mob with his gun drawn -- were hospitalized and 26 protestors were arrested and charged.

Critics of the government said that by focusing police and military protection around the parliament buildings, where the vote was taking place, the rest of the city was left at the mercy of the spreading riot.

Smaller protests took place in other parts of the country, including Milan, Turin, Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia.

Berlusconi, who had seen his approval ratings slide in recent weeks amid charges of sex crimes and influence peddling combined with slow economic growth and the defection of key political allies, won a confidence vote in parliament Tuesday by a 314-311 margin. If he had lost the vote, he would have been forced to step down.

In his first official act since the vote, Berlusconi on Wednesday criticized the riots that damaged many parts of the Italian capital and sent shock waves across Italy and Europe.

"What happened yesterday was not an expression of freedom," Berlusconi said. "It was an attack by an organized groups of hooligans."

Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior minister, blamed the riots on left-wing extremists who worked to stoke passions among participants of a peaceful student march as a way to embarrass Berlusconi. But he said the results could have been worse.

"I can offer that in the end, things went well," Maroni said in an interview with the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. "If we had been less lucky, someone would have been killed."

By Wednesday morning, the violence had subsided.

From a political perspective, the result of the vote is less certain. Pundits said Gianfranco Fini, a former Berlusconi ally who sparked the political crisis by calling on Berlusconi to resign, will almost surely lose influence as a result of the vote.

Fini, who will remain speaker of the lower house of parliament, had staked his future on leading the movement to topple Berlusconi.

But despite speculation about Fini's diminished future prospects, Berlusconi's position is by no means strong. The thin margin of victory, which was tarnished by widespread charges of vote buying, combined with the riots that followed, make it clear Berlusconi lacks a clear mandate to go forward.P On Wednesday, Berlusconi vowed to finish his current term, which runs through 2013, but that appeared unlikely without a move to broaden his support in parliament or new elections.

Berlusconi is expected to try to avoid new elections if possible as with approval ratings in the low 30s, it is unclear whether his lot will improve with a new parliament.

The best thing Berlusconi has going for him is a lack of organization among his political opponents.

With Fini's defeat in parliament Tuesday, the prospect of a united front of centrists behind Fini, Pier Ferdinando Casini, another former ally, and center-left figures including former Roman Mayor Walter Veltroni seems dim -- at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, the most uniting figure on the left is Nichi Vendola, an openly gay politician from the southern region of Puglia. But though the 52-year-old Vendola is seen as a rising star, polls show that many Italians would not favor an openly gay leader.

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