The vote on Wednesday was the penultimate step to ending a government split in which the media tycoon was forced to resign last week by coalition parties who demanded a change of tack after he suffered a devastating regional election defeat.

The lower house voted 334 to 240 in favour of the confidence motion with two abstentions. The upper house is likely to give its backing in a vote due on Thursday, drawing a line under the worst political crisis of Berlusconi's four years in office.

In a spirited performance before the vote, Berlusconi told the opposition it was wrong to think he was fatally weakened by events and that the centre-left leader, former European Commission President Romano Prodi, would win the next election.

Jeers from left

"To our friends on the left, I would say: Don't kid yourself that you already have victory in hand," Berlusconi said to a hail of jeers from his opponents.

Berlusconi: Our leftist friends do
not already have victory in hand

Berlusconi, who said he entered politics in the 1990s to save Italy from the left, repeated his position that the media, schools and the judiciary were controlled by leftists and that most Italians preferred the right.

"We are sure that Italians will not want to put everything in the hands of the left, we are set for an extraordinary year and a final victory a year from now like we had in 2001."

Opposition parties said the election bruising and resignation had robbed Berlusconi of credibility. "There's nothing worse than a politician who cannot look defeat in the eye," Piero Fassino, leader of the Democrats of the Left, said.

But more damaging than the goading from the left may be the continued tensions within Berlusconi's coalition.

Open to doubt

The Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), the coalition party which demanded Berlusconi resign last week, backed the confidence motion, but its leader cast doubt on the continued role of Berlusconi as the centre-right's figurehead.

"There's nothing
worse than a politician who cannot look
defeat in the eye"

Piero Fassino,
Democrats of the Left leader

"We can't slide towards 2006 as though everything was already decided - the structure of the coalition, the leader and even the result," he told the chamber.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, has often said he never wanted to be prime minister, but saw it as his duty.

"I couldn't be happier than if someone else were to carry the flag," he told reporters. When asked who might take his place, he replied: "There are names, lots, 50 good ones, let's see them come out."

Iraq factor

Berlusconi blamed the strong euro for Italy's weak economic performance and has promised tax breaks for families and a 12 billion euro ($16 billion) cut in corporate taxes as part of a fresh drive to help companies, families and the poor south.

The economy and Berlusconi's decision to send 3000 troops to Iraq have been two factors in his popular decline.

But he remains the only leader acceptable to all parties on the right and is keen to win a new term. He has told allied parties he will represent them only if they converge into a single entity or agree on some sort of majority voting system.

Adding to the pressure on Berlusconi, he faces another legal battle after Milan prosecutors said on Tuesday they had asked a judge to put him on trial for alleged corruption at broadcaster Mediaset, controlled by his family.