Italy held its breath on Tuesday as lawmakers staged a knife-edge confidence vote on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government that could bring down the flamboyant Italian leader.
Berlusconi voiced confidence in a victorious outcome as he arrived in parliament and said he "absolutely excluded" his resignation, demanded by former allies from his centre-right coalition who rebelled against him.
His government won a confidence vote in the Senate as expected ahead of the more hotly contested vote in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house.
The government garnered 162 senators' votes in favor out of 308 cast.
"This is a country that is tired and wants change," the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani, said during heated debates ahead of the vote in the Chamber, expected at around 1200 GMT.
Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption judge and leader of the Italy of Values party, said Berlusconi's "papier-mache empire" was finished.
"Go to the Bahamas! This is what awaits you: giving yourself up to the judiciary or fleeing," Di Pietro shouted at Berlusconi.
But Fabrizio Cicchitto, the leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party in the lower house, said: "Berlusconi's story is not over."
Thousands of anti-Berlusconi protesters meanwhile rallied in Italy's biggest cities to demand a change of government. Hundreds of police officers patrolled the center of Rome and blocked off access to the parliament.
"Let's hope the government falls today," said one of the protesters, 17-year-old Enrico Morsillo. Victor Hugo Santos, 17, agreed: "It's a government that's not good for young people and doesn't think about the future."
The confidence vote follows a bitter split within the ruling coalition after the rebellion earlier this year of Berlusconi's once-loyal ally Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of parliament, along with around 40 lawmakers.
Analysts say the vote in the lower house is too close to call.
Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi's brother, forecast the prime minister would win with 314 votes in his favor and 308 against.
La Repubblica, a leftist daily that is very critical of Berlusconi's rule, said Berlusconi would lose by 313 votes against and 312 votes for.
Berlusconi appealed to Fini's supporters on Monday, calling on them to show "responsibility" and saying: "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 scandals in recent years as well as the defection of close allies and his support in the Chamber of Deputies is less sure.
The government's current mandate is set to run out in 2013.
"Berlusconi: The Day of Truth," read a headline in La Repubblica, while Corriere Della Sera said the government was "on the razor's edge."
"Parliament will today probably finalize the collapse of the structure of centre-right coalitions for 16 years -- the alliance between Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini," Corriere della Sera said in an editorial.
La Repubblica criticized Berlusconi's attempt to rally his former allies from the centre-right, saying: "It's a little prayer to try and survive another bit with the illusion of still having a government, a majority."
Fini's Future and Freedom for Italy movement and the small opposition Union of the Centre party both rejected Berlusconi's overtures, calling on the prime minister to resign before any talks on a new coalition could begin.
Should he lose the vote, Berlusconi will be forced to offer his resignation.
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