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Italian center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi gestures at the Senate in Rome, October 2, 2013. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said on Wednesday his government could achieve reforms even with a smaller majority, as he wound up a debate on a confidence vote in which he has been boosted by dissidents from Berlusconi's centre-right party.TONY GENTILE/Reuters

Silvio Berlusconi's campaign to destroy the government that was set to eject him from the senate has ended with the former prime minister's most humiliating political defeat in two decades.

Faced with an open mutiny among the senior ranks of his People of Liberty party (PdL), Mr. Berlusconi, in a last-minute reversal, threw his support behind the wobbly coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta. The stunning U-turn allowed the government to win Wednesday's confidence vote and avoid the political chaos that euro-zone leaders feared would plunge the entire region back into economic crisis.

Only a few hours before the confidence vote, which Mr. Letta called a "historic day in Italy's democracy," some PdL officials were insisting the party would vote against the government, even though a few high-profile PdL members were in open revolt and stated that Mr. Letta would get their support.

As the revolt gained momentum, Mr. Berlusconi, unsmiling, his hands clasped, apparently decided to use one of his last political acts to present himself as a responsible statesman while sparing his party from a potentially fatal division. "Putting together expectations and the fact that Italy needs a government which produces institutional and structural reforms, we have decided – not without a sense of internal anguish – to support the vote of confidence," he said in the senate.

When the confidence vote went his way, Mr. Letta raised his hand and flashed a V-for-victory sign. Before the vote, he had warned the collapse of his five-month-old government would pose a "fatal risk" to recession-battered Italy because it would derail its economic reform efforts and the launch of its crucial new budget.

While Mr. Berlusconi's political obituary has been written countless times, it appears that his career is all but finished, and finished in a way that has embarrassed and angered him. In a tweet, Mario Calabresi, editor of La Stampa newspaper, said: "The political takeaway of today is that Berlusconi is no longer a determining factor for the survival of the government."

Mr. Berlusconi had hoped to become Italy's president, who is head of state. Instead, he faces certain ejection from the senate this month because of his conviction in August for tax fraud. His felony came with a four-year sentence, later reduced to one-year, which will probably be served under house arrest. He is appealing a seven-year sentence for sex with an underage prostitute, the Moroccan showgirl Karima El Mahroug (both deny they had sex with one another).

Mr. Berlusconi, who is 77, twice divorced and engaged to a woman in her late 20s, can claim be one of Italy's most successful post-war politicians in spite of his botched effort to bring down Mr. Letta's government. He has won three elections since 1994 and lost three.

But even when he was in opposition, he exercised formidable power. Almost a year ago, his decision to withdraw his party's support for the technical government of Mario Monti sent Italy into early elections. Mr. Berlusconi, who had been written off by some political commentators as a spent force, won about 30 per cent of the votes, depriving Mr. Letta's Democratic Party of a majority and forcing it into a coalition with Mr. Berlusconi's party.

Until Wednesday, when the mutiny within the PdL triggered Mr. Berlusconi's confidence vote reversal, he remained, arguably, Italy's most powerful politician.

While his capitulation will allow Mr. Letta's government to survive, the risks of its premature death have not vanished, as the coalition parties inevitably return to their warring ways. In a note published just ahead of the confidence vote, the French investment bank Société Générale said, "whether Letta wins or loses the confidence vote does not materially change Italy's situation. The result will always be a short-lived government, with the risks of new elections looming over the coming months."

Some Italians were not convinced that Mr. Berlusconi's felony conviction and his failed effort to bring down the government will truly end his political career. They note his endless ability to surprise and his extraordinary physical vigour. Andrea, a Roman lawyer who would not provide his last name, said: "He'll keep going. He's got the best doctors in the world."

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