By Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Oct. 4 (Xinhua) -- Italy's parliament voted to strip former Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi of his Senate seat, a highly anticipated move that deals yet another high-profile blow to the 77-year-old, who is now more vulnerable than he has ever been.
Parliament first started to debate Berlusconi's Senate seat nearly a month ago, on Sept. 9, but the process ran into several delays along the way as Berlusconi's followers threatened to topple the government if their leader lost his seat. With Friday's vote approaching, Berlusconi ordered five ministers to quit last weekend, forcing Prime Minister Enrico Letta to call a confidence vote that was held Wednesday.
If Letta lost that vote, he would have been forced to resign and Berlusconi would have shown he still had great political strength. But with some Berlusconi allies indicating they would defect to support Letta and odds on the rise that the prime minister would survive, Berlusconi abruptly changed tactics and voted to support Letta.
With the government's survival assured, lawmakers moved on to the next major order of business -- the vote on Berlusconi's seat.
Berlusconi's expulsion from the Senate hurts him in several ways: it is blow to his prestige and his air of invincibility, plus a reminder that he is now a convicted criminal. But perhaps more importantly, it leaves Berlusconi open to arrests in other trials against him now that he is without the protection from some kinds of lawsuits given to members of parliament.
Now questions are emerging about the future of the political movement Berlusconi founded 20 years ago.
The party, which Berlusconi recently renamed Forza Italia -- its original moniker -- remains the second largest member of the grand coalition supporting the Letta government. But it is now without the strong-armed founder and leader responsible for much of its influence.
Of course, Berlusconi will attempt to consolidate his control over the party. But with no seat in the legislature and a sentence of a year of house arrest that will help keep him out of the spotlight, that may be a tall order.
Another possibility is that Forza Italia could splinter into two factions: those most loyal to Berlusconi, and those willing to part ways with the party's founder on certain issues, such as those -- probably including four of the five ministers Berlusconi ordered to walk off the job -- who showed they were willing to back Letta in order to preserve the stability of the government.
Either way, Forza Italia's future will to some extent mirror Berlusconi's own fortunes. And if there's a point the 77-year-old Berlusconi has made during a 20-year political career fraught with controversy and legal problems, it's that it's never a safe bet to count him out.