ROME -- The Senate in Italy voted to eject Silvio Berlusconi from its ranks on Wednesday, bringing a temporary end to the parliamentary career of the three-time prime minister who has dominated the country's politics for two decades.
With insults flying in the Senate chamber and Berlusconi’s supporters holding a noisy demonstration outside his Rome residence, senators decided to oust the 77-year-old media mogul after his tax fraud conviction in August. [Updated 11:57 a.m. PST Nov. 27: No formal vote on expulsion was held, but Berlusconi was ejected after the Senate rejected challenges to a proposal for his expulsion in a series of votes in which about 194 senators voted against him and about 114 voted for him.]
The decision followed approval last year of a law backed by Berlusconi that strips of their office politicians sentenced to more than two years in prison and bans them from seeking election for six years.
As senators prepared to vote, Berlusconi told about 1,500 supporters in Rome that Wednesday was a “day of mourning for democracy,” but promised he would continue in politics from outside parliament. The backers held banners reading “Italy is with Berlusconi!” and waved flags bearing the message “Silvio’s army."
The vote is a serious blow to the faltering political career of the man who used his television, construction and publishing fortune to create a new political party from scratch and win office in 1994 as the Clean Hands corruption probe brought down Italy’s traditional ruling class. He eventually became Italy’s longest-serving prime minister of the post-World-War-II era.
But Berlusconi has since been hampered by investigations into his own businesses and private life, although his conviction this year for tax fraud at his TV company was his first definitive sentence after he beat other convictions on appeal or saw them timed out by the statute of limitations. [Updated 11:57 a.m. PST Nov. 27: In the fraud conviction, he was found guilty of inflating payments made for film rights and channeling money through offshore holdings to avoid paying taxes.]
Now, stripped of the role of senator, it will be easier for Italian magistrates to arrest Berlusconi as he is investigated in other probes, including the alleged bribing of a senator to switch allegiances to his party.
Berlusconi may yet also face investigation over suspicions he paid witnesses to tone down their accounts of his infamous “bunga bunga” parties. Berlusconi is currently appealing a sentence for paying an underage prostitute, Karima el Mahroug, who attended those parties.
Addressing supporters as darkness fell in Rome on Wednesday, Berlusconi said he had no intention of retiring from politics, pointing out that two influential Italian politicians, center-left leadership contender Matteo Renzi and former comic Beppe Grillo, do not have seats in parliament. He promised to set up 1,000 clubs of new supporters in Italy by December.
Berlusconi’s campaigning would be made more complicated if he chooses to carry out a year of community service as part of his tax fraud conviction. His alternative is to spend a year under house arrest. [Updated 12:30 p.m. PST Nov. 27: His original four-year sentence was reduced to a year by an amnesty law.]
Berlusconi has come back from political oblivion before. After resigning as prime minister in November 2011 as the scandal over his private life grew and the Italian economy crumbled, Berlusconi appeared to retire from politics as Mario Monti took over the country to push through a series of austerity measures.
But late last year he staged a comeback campaign, picking up on popular loathing of a housing tax introduced by Monti, outshining a lackluster campaign by center-left candidate Pierluigi Bersani in the run-up to elections in February and placing his loyal backers in a cross-party government created after the election and led by Enrico Letta.
But as the Senate vote neared and Berlusconi sought last month to bring down the government with a no-confidence vote, his backers in the government, led by Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, turned their back on him, preferring to stay loyal to Letta’s government rather than the man who had handpicked them for politics.
The 59 renegades formed a new party, the New Center Right, as Berlusconi relaunched the Forza Italia party, with which he entered politics in 1994.
Members of the breakaway group were insulted by Berlusconi backers in the Senate before the vote on Wednesday. Alessandra Mussolini, a Berlusconi supporter and the granddaughter of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, called Alfano a "piranha."
With the vote going against him, Berlusconi’s rump party has officially pulled its support from the Letta government, leaving it with a sizable majority in the lower house but a slimmer majority of about six votes in the Senate.
A key confidence vote on the budget nonetheless passed on Tuesday, with Letta declaring: “The government, even if it has tighter numbers, is decidedly stronger, more coherent and compact.”