Noted Italian political expert Gaetano Rando describes the lawmaking of his homeland as “fairly fluid”. So much so it almost washed the prime minister Silvio Berlusconi out of office overnight amid rising anger over the rule of the very-rich Lothario.

Berlusconi survived a no-confidence vote in both houses of the Italian parliament — but only just. His position according to Rando, an associate professor of Italian studies at the University of Wollongong, is now more precarious than ever. Crikey sought clarification on the mad world of Mediterranean politics …

What happened overnight?

Berlusconi comfortably won a confidence vote in the Senate (upper house), 162 to 135, with 11 abstentions. But the vote in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, was much closer — 314-311, with two members abstaining. Berlusconi has faced similar votes in the past, the last in September, but none have been as tight.

In Rome, students and other groups were protesting against education reform in the country — “seen as not being reform at all,” Italian-born Rando says, who was closely following events from Australia. “As soon as it was announced Berlusconi had gained the confidence in the lower house you had some fringe elements who acted quite violently.” CNN reports a crowd of several hundred threw rocks and bottles and smashed motorcycles and police vehicles, while police lobbed tear gas canisters.

How does the Italian parliament work?

Elections for both houses are held every five years and the only major difference between the two is the manner in which parliamentarians are elected to each. All of the 630 members of the COD must be at least 25 years-old and are elected by all Italians over 18. The 315 senators that make up the SOR must be at least 40 years-old and their electors must be over 25.

Additionally, there are distinct “life senators” in the SOR who are appointed by the President of the Republic for exemplary achievements in cultural, academic or scientific fields. Article 59 of the Italian constitution states that anyone who has had held presidential office immediately becomes a “life senator”.

How does parliament dump a prime minister?

The Italian constitution prescribes that all governments must pass a “resolution of confidence” through both houses before it can legitimately begin pursuing its legislative agenda. This resolution outlines the newly elected government’s proposed political program. Each house may also withdraw its confidence in a government through a motion setting out its reasons, which is then voted on by all members with a roll-call. A successful motion of no-confidence must be signed by one-tenth of the members of the house and cannot be debated earlier than three days before its presentation.

If Berlusconi, in his third term as PM, lost a confidence vote he would be forced to stand down. The Italian president would negotiate a new government with the ruling coalition and if a deal couldn’t be done an election would be called, Rando explains.

How did Berlusconi lose the support of much of parliament?

Gianfranco Fini is at the centre of the latest agitation. He shares Berlusconi’s centre-right ideology but had become a critic of the government and was eventually thrown out of the party. He formed a new political group with about 40 lawmakers, Futuro e libertà per l’Italia (Future and Freedom for Italy), and joined with left-aligned parties in the overnight confidence vote. Like a grand Italian Puccini opera, Berlusconi has declared Fini a betrayer.

It’s not at all unusual for politicians to drift in and out of parties, Rando explains. In the current state of play, opposition forces against Berlusconi’s rule are still a minority but allegiances change quickly. Berlusconi is now reaching out to the Christian Democratic Union, which is currently allied with Fini.

And the people …?

It depends, naturally, on who you talk to. The left, says Rando (who was awarded the Order of the Star of Solidarity by the Italian government in 2005 for promoting his country’s interests), will always see the accident-prone prime minister “as a new Mussolini, as a fascist” leading a “soft dictatorship”. “In some ways that can be justified.”

And the rest? “I think in a sense I guess the problem is a lot of Italians tend to accept the situation rather than act critically,” he says. It’s an electorate in part not engaged and in part “sort of resigned to having a succession of governments that haven’t done a lot for them”.

Only in Italy, it seems, does a litany of s-x and corruption scandals not disqualify you from the job. At least not yet. “The difference being a politician can behave like that and not face any drastic consequences whereas in the UK or US the consequences could be quite substantial,” Rando says.

So can Berlusconi survive?

The next general election is not due until 2013, and president Giorgio Napolitano, who has the authority to dissolve parliament, opposes new elections in a time of Europe-wide economic crisis.

But with Berlusconi’s majority on a knife-edge the possibility of an early election remains. “If he lost on some significant issues and it was proved yet again he’s not able to govern then it could happen,” Rando says.