- Prime Minister Enrico Letta handily wins a confidence vote in the Italian Senate
- He is also expected to win a confidence vote in the lower house of Parliament
- Silvio Berlusconi drops a bid to topple the government, says his party backs Letta
- Berlusconi could lose his Senate seat after a conviction for tax fraud was upheld
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta's coalition government survived a confidence vote Wednesday by a healthy margin, with 235 senators voting in favor to 70 against.
The threat receded shortly before the vote when former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi unexpectedly dropped his bid to topple the government, saying his party's lawmakers would support the motion.
Berlusconi's move came after members of his center-right People of Freedom Party signaled they would defy his orders and back the government.
The lower house of parliament is still scheduled to vote on a motion of confidence in Letta's government later Wednesday. However, the prime minister has a majority in that chamber and is not in serious danger of losing the vote.
Before the senators voted, Letta, of the center-left Democratic Party, appealed for their backing, warning that Italy faced a "fatal" risk with the confidence vote.
Letta, who took office five months ago, argued that the country needs political stability to help its recovery from its economic woes.
"A government and political crisis would only mean more economic difficulties," he told lawmakers. "It means not going through with the reforms needed to boost the economy and help the unemployed and the country. It means that the rest of Europe still looks at us as 'the unfixable' messy country."
The crisis was triggered when Berlusconi on Saturday ordered ministers from his party to pull out of the fragile coalition government.
But the former prime minister's political gamble appears to have divided his own party, resulting in his sudden climbdown. Italian news agency Ansa had earlier cited People of Freedom Party member Carlo Giovanardi as saying that more than 40 center-right lawmakers were willing to back Letta's government.
Observers speculate that the reported fracturing within Berlusconi's party could be the beginning of the end of his checkered political career.
"I definitely do not believe that this time around Mister Berlusconi can escape his fate," Former Prime Minister Mario Monti told CNN's Christiane Amanpour Wednesday from Rome. "He has been pronounced defeated and out of politics many, many times in the past. He has given proof of an incredible resilience, but I believe this time he will not."
On Friday, Berlusconi will be the subject of a parliamentary committee that will consider whether he should lose his Senate seat after a conviction for tax fraud was upheld by Italy's supreme court two months ago. He has insisted the prosecutions against him are politically motivated.
In an apparent reference to Berlusconi's legal difficulties, Letta told senators Wednesday that they must make a distinction between the judicial troubles of Berlusconi, or any other member of parliament, and the job of the executive.
Letta said reforms to pull Italy out of recession must continue, and that political stability is the key to boosting growth and creating more jobs. Italians want to see their elected representatives govern, not indulge in political drama, he said.
He appealed to the Senate to have the courage and strength to back the confidence motion, for the sake of the country.
The formation of the coalition government in April ended weeks of uncertainty following inconclusive elections in February.
Berlusconi, who served on and off as prime minister between 1994 and 2011, has dominated the lively history of Italian politics for the past two decades.
For years, he has also been entangled in fraud, corruption and sex scandals that have often reached the Italian courts.
He is currently appealing a prison sentence handed down
in June for abuse of power and having sex with an underage prostitute.