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Reeling from riots, Italy faces uncertainty

15 December 2010, 21:33

Rome - Italians voiced shock on Wednesday after violent protests set off by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's narrow victory in a vote in parliament that leaves his government hanging by a thread.

Berlusconi survived a no-confidence vote in the lower house by just three votes, following the rebellion of speaker of parliament Gianfranco Fini who left the ruling coalition with his allies earlier this year.

The victory ignited running street battles between hundreds of anti-Berlusconi protesters and riot police in which more than 100 people were injured in the tourist-heavy centre of the Italian capital.

"What happened yesterday was not an expression of freedom. It was an attack by organised groups of hooligans," Berlusconi said on a news show on Wednesday.

Protesters set cars alight, hurled cobblestones and beat officers with metal bars. Police retaliated by firing tear gas and striking protesters.

A total of 26 protesters have been charged, police said on Wednesday.

One officer dragged to the ground was seen by an AFP photographer with his gun in hand, though he later said the weapon had dropped out of his holster and he had grabbed it to prevent it falling into the hands of protesters.

"Rome was defiled like it hadn't been since 1977 during the terrible Years of Lead," when Italy was rocked by violent political militancy including bombings, shootings and kidnappings, said the Corriere della Sera daily.

'A rebellion without rules'

Rome's mayor Gianni Alemanno said the clashes were "shocking" and likened them to the "gratuitous violence that was on the streets of Rome in the 1970s and that I hoped never to see again."

Alemanno estimated the damage at €20m.

"The absurd outburst of violence that devastated a part of Rome is an alarm bell because... a rebellion without rules is taking root," Il Messaggero said.

La Repubblica said the violence was "a reflection of the unease, of the insecurity of a country that can no longer be heard, that no longer finds common ground between itself and those that govern it".

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the clashes were caused by 2 000 people who infiltrated a protest by about 20 000 people.

"We're talking about delinquents who are professionals in carrying out acts of violence. They are no longer tolerable and need to be stopped," he said.

Berlusconi on Wednesday said he would now try to bolster his support in parliament by appealing to individual deputies to join his ruling majority as well as possibly including them in the government.

"Taking the country to a vote would be really irresponsible," he said, referring to the current turbulence on European financial markets.

Columnist Stefano Folli, writing in business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, said: "The prime minister is moving prudently. He knows that the government is very weak and that he first has to patch it up and then consolidate it.

"There are two possibilities: trying to enlarge the majority in parliament... or prepare for early elections," Folli said.

"It's clear that after the vote the government cannot re-start its politics of announcements... without guaranteeing even a basic governance," he added.

La Repubblica said early elections were "the most likely outcome", while Corriere della Sera said: "Early elections are closer after yesterday."

The current Berlusconi government took power in 2008 - he has won two previous elections - and its mandate is only set to run out in 2013.

"His precarious majority hangs on a thousand impossible promises and will not allow the premier to approve anything," La Repubblica said.

"The Cavaliere has won but the game has only just begun," it added.



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