ROME (AP) — Three-time former Premier Silvio Berlusconi was ousted from Parliament on Wednesday after two decades as a lawmaker, defiantly calling it "a day of mourning for democracy" and pledging to continue in politics.
After weeks of maneuvering, appeals and even an attempt to bring down the government, Berlusconi's delay tactics ran their course when the Senate voted to kick him out of the chamber due to a tax fraud conviction.
Ever a populist, the 77-year-old billionaire chose the piazza over the Senate floor, addressing a crowd of cheering supporters outside his Roman palazzo as the vote was under way just a short walk away.
"We are here on a bitter day, a day of mourning for democracy," Berlusconi declared. He said his political enemies — including the judiciary he accuses of mounting a campaign against him — were "toasting" his demise.
"They are actually euphoric," he said. Berlusconi pledged to remain in politics — effectively launching a campaign in which he won't be able to stand for office — noting that other political leaders are not lawmakers.
He cited Beppe Grillo, the former comic and founder of the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement, and Matteo Renzi, the Florence mayor who is a Democratic Party star widely tipped as a future premier candidate.
The Senate vote bars Berlusconi from running or holding office for at least six years under a 2012 law applied to anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years on a tax fraud conviction relating to the purchase of TV rights to U.S. films on his Mediaset network, charges he continues to deny. The sentence was automatically reduced to one year by a general amnesty, which he will serve either under house arrest or doing public service.
In the last election, Berlusconi's now-defunct and splintered People of Freedom Party garnered 7.3 million votes, or 21.5 percent of the vote. Berlusconi's charisma remains compelling to many Italians despite his ongoing judicial woes.
"I think for the time being he still controls a substantial number of voters," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a political analyst at Rome's LUISS University. "He hasn't lost the hardcore voters." But D'Alimonte said to maintain them he will have to "be aggressive, be his usual Berlusconi" and not appear to be weakening, even physically due to age.
Seeking to reinvigorate himself politically, Berlusconi has relaunched the Forza Italia party that catapulted him to power in 1994. On the eve of the Senate vote, he bolted the government and joined the opposition, a move that may ultimately free his hand in a political campaign.
But he also has suffered a defection from his one-time political heir, Angelino Alfano, who split from his mentor earlier this month and formed a new center-right party that remains loyal to Premier Enrico Letta's hybrid government. Alfano's allegiance to the government ensured that it survived a confidence vote early Wednesday to pass the annual budget, despite Berlusconi's switch.
Berlusconi's expulsion makes the government majority "slimmer but more cohesive," said Federico Santi, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. At least for the short-term, Alfano's new party will avoid triggering a crisis to build a party structure and the Democratic Party will remain committed to the government "in light of opposition of among its voters to early elections and fears of electoral stalemate." Meanwhile, Berlusconi still faces other legal problems, including a seven-year prison term and lifetime ban from holding public office for his conviction of paying an underage prostitute for sex at his infamous "bunga bunga" parties and trying to cover it up. He has professed his innocence and plans to appeal.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Patricia Thomas contributed to this report.