Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is bracing for a confidence vote in Italy's parliament this week that will determine his political future amid a rebellion by some allies and growing discontent with his leadership at a time of financial crisis.
Small anti-Berlusconi demonstrations erupted Wednesday in Rome, Naples and other cities in a sign the anger is spreading beyond Italy's bickering politicians to ordinary citizens.
Berlusconi is set to address parliament on Thursday and will likely defend his government's record and relaunch its legislative agenda. The vote of confidence is expected to be held the following day, said Fabrizio Cicchitto, a parliamentary whip for the governing party.
If he loses, Berlusconi would be forced to resign.
Berlusconi, a media tycoon, has been weakened by sex scandals centering on so-called "bunga bunga" parties at his villas with dancers and prostitutes. He faces separate trials in Milan on charges of corruption, tax fraud and — in the most sensational case — paying for sex with a minor. He denies wrongdoing, claiming that he is the victim of politically-driven magistrates who want to oust him from power.
The government's rifts — including between Berlusconi and his powerful finance minister, Giulio Tremonti — have been exposed for weeks over austerity measures necessary to balance Italy's budget and avoid contagion from Greece's debt crisis. The government has modified the measures several times and drawn criticism for its lack of clear direction.
In a blunt message Wednesday, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano demanded "credible answers" from the Cabinet and parliament alike, pointing to "the undeniable display of acute tensions within the government and the coalition." It was an unusual step from a highly respected and largely ceremonial figure — and one that added pressure on Berlusconi.
Italian Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, who takes over the helm of the European Central Bank on Nov. 1, urged the government to act more quickly to implement reforms that can spur growth — beyond the austerity package that put Italy on the path to balance its budget by 2013.
Otherwise, Draghi warned that the rising cost of borrowing to service national debt seen over the last three months will eat up "no small part" of the austerity package approved by Parliament last month.
"The goal of relaunching growth is finally largely shared, but the adoption of the measures necessary so far have banged up against apparently insurmountabale difficulties," Draghi said in a speech Wednesday.
The 75-year-old premier has dismissed any calls for his resignation and vowed to serve out his five-year mandate, which expires in 2013.
But his support in parliament has eroded.
He suffered an embarrassing defeat Tuesday when a routine piece of legislation failed to pass the lower house by a single vote. Tremonti had missed the voting by a few seconds, but insisted later there was no political motive in his absence.
Berlusconi's allies have dismissed Tuesday's defeat as a freak incident, saying the confidence vote will show the government still enjoy the parliament's support.
But recently, Berlusconi has faced open criticism and a rebellion from some long-time members of his party, including two former ministers, who have expressed disappointment over the government. And long-time ally Umberto Bossi of the Northern League has suggested that Berlusconi's government would not complete its mandate.
Many Italians who took to the streets Wednesday sang the national anthem and yelled slogans against "the caste" — a term that has taken on the pejorative meaning of a corrupted, power hungry political class.
Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Milan.