Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images Contributor
A demonstrator holds a banner which depicts Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with the slogan 'Throw the shoe to Silvio' during an 'Occupy' protest on Oct.15, 2011 in Rome, Italy.
By NBC News’ Claudio Lavanga
ROME – Just as the ancient Roman senators turned against the Emperor Caesar on the eve of his assassination in 44 B.C., Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seems to be heading for a similar, yet bloodless, backstabbing in his own government that could lead to a swift downfall of his political empire.
Under pressure from European leaders tired of hearing empty promises, thousands of Italians protesting (sometimes violently) against his austerity measures, a fierce political opposition looking for a chance to make a fatal blow and the voiced concerns of Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano over his ability to pass reforms, an embattled Berlusconi is quickly being abandoned by his allies.
On Thursday, two members of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party left his ranks to join the opposition. Four more asked him to resign for the sake of Italy’s future, after he has appeared incapable of introducing reforms aimed at calming market speculation, reducing the budget deficit, kick-starting growth and fixing Italy’s enormous sovereign debt.
With a razor-thin majority in the lower house of parliament, every parliamentarian’s vote counts.
Six of them could mean survival or defeat for Berlusconi.
Given Berlusconi’s political survival skills, it’s impossible to predict what might happen.
"You would need a crystal ball to figure out what's coming next,” said Giovanni Orsina, a political analyst and professor of European studies at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, during a phone interview with NBC on Friday. “But the impression is talking about Berlusconi is like talking about a terminally ill patient. You don't know how long he's got: One day, one week, even one month maybe.”
Orsina pointed out the Berlusconi is so unpopular now, he can’t rely on his old supporters. “One thing seems to be certain: Every time parliament will be called to vote, could be the last day for Berlusconi as prime minister. Because his majority is so reduced, now he has no guarantees."
Dylan Martinez / Reuters
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addresses a news conference with Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti at the G-20 Summit in Cannes on Friday.
More of the usual political merry-go-round?
And yet this could just be the latest round of blackmailing that opposition leaders like Antonio Di Pietro, founder of the Italy of Values party, say has become a regular part of daily Italian politics. He and other members of the opposition accuse Berlusconi of repaying the support of disgruntled members of his governing coalition with promotions, funds and favors.
“The selling, buying and blackmailing of politicians is part of a criminal plan that Berlusconi is using to preserve the majority in parliament,” Di Pietro said in October. “It’s like being in a pigsty, where parliamentarians don’t answer to the electorate anymore, and instead they sell their vote to the highest bidder.”
But it’s impossible to know whether the “rebels” among Berlusconi’s allies are trying to save Italy or themselves. When approached by a journalist on Thursday evening, one of the four remaining would-be defectors, Giorgio Straquadanio, threatened him verbally and later smashed the cameraman’s spotlight on the pavement.
The doling out of political favors by the government is one of the many problems that have prevented Italy’s lower house of parliament from reaching the standards of stability, seriousness and political honesty seen elsewhere in Europe.
Italy’s democracy is relatively new. Since it became a parliamentarian republic in 1946, Italy’s political system has been a merry-go-round of politicians who have gravitated in and around parliament, swapping seats but never leaving the carousel. This has created a stagnant political culture in which elected parliamentarians stop answering to the electorate the moment they step into one of the two houses of parliament, where they often use their voting power as a token that can be traded to buy their way into privileges and more power.
The fragmented party system hasn’t helped create order either. Small parties are born almost daily, usually founded by spin-off politicians who want to grab a piece of the political limelight, only to be engulfed by one of the two ruling coalitions, the center-left and the center-right.
Although the political scene is dominated by the center-right People of Freedom Party and the center-left Democratic Party, the Italian parliament is a galaxy of raising and falling political stars that threaten the equilibrium of the whole political system.
Marco Secchi / Getty Images Contributor
Protesters pass near the Colosseum during an 'Occupy' protest on Oct.15, 2011 in Rome, Italy. Protesters set fire to a government building, torched cars and smashed bank windows in Rome in the worst violence of the worldwide demonstrations against financial mismanagement and government cutbacks.
The latest political stars, the four members of the coalition who have threatened to defect, could well lead Berlusconi into a black hole he will never be able to re-emerge from.
Just one vote could spell the end
At the last vote of confidence, one of many the prime minister has had to endure since he was re-elected in 2008, he won with 316 votes. That’s the exact number he needs to hold an absolute majority in Parliament, meaning that even one vote, one single backstabber, one disgruntled sniper, could bring him down the next time he is called to convince the parliament, as well as millions of Italians and worried European leaders, that he still has the numbers to get his tough austerity measures approved.
That day will come soon. He has already announced that he will ask for yet another vote of confidence sometimes in the middle of November.
Even for a master businessman and negotiator like Berlusconi, there might be not enough time to strike deals with the defecting ranks among his coalition partners.
Knives are already out. The die might be cast already.