ROME (Reuters) - An Italian Senate committee on Friday recommended that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi be expelled from parliament after his conviction for tax fraud, paving the way for a final decision this month that could seal his political fate.
The recommendation to kick out the man who has dominated Italian politics for the past two decades was taken by a cross-party committee of 23 Senators dominated by the centre-right leader's political opponents.
It will have to be ratified later this month by a vote of the full Senate, where Berlusconi's supporters are also in a minority, before he loses his seat.
Berlusconi did not attend Friday's hearing, denouncing the procedure as a manoeuvre by his political enemies to remove him. His allies remained defiant after the vote.
"This is clearly a political decision to get rid of the leader of Italy's centre right by judicial means," said Renato Brunetta, lower house leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party.
"The axemen shouldn't delude themselves, what is rolling on the floor is the title of senator, not the head of the man and the politician Berlusconi, who remains the leader and point of reference for half of the Italians."
The Senate proceedings cap a disastrous week for the 77-year-old billionaire, who was forced into a humiliating climbdown on Wednesday by a party revolt which made him back centre-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta in parliament.
After pulling his ministers from the coalition government at the weekend and calling for new elections, Berlusconi had to reverse his decision to bring down the government and, instead, backed Letta in a confidence vote after dissenters in his own party threatened to tear the centre right apart.
The revolt left Berlusconi's PDL divided into two blocs, with 42-year-old party secretary Angelino Alfano heading a group of moderates while a hard core of loyalists remain with Berlusconi, although a formal split has not yet been confirmed.
Even if Berlusconi is expelled from the Senate as expected he could still lead the centre right, or the part of it that remains loyal to him, from outside parliament.
However, his position would be weaker and he would be robbed of the protection from arrest which parliamentarians enjoy, which could be important as he faces many other legal cases.
Financial markets have reacted positively to the survival of Letta's government, with yields on Italian 10-year bonds falling to 4.3 percent, the same as before the crisis erupted.
Berlusconi's political future has been under threat since early August, when Italy's top court rejected a final appeal and found him guilty of a massive tax fraud scheme at his Mediaset television empire.
It sentenced him to four years in prison, commuted to one year under house arrest or in community service, making him ineligible for parliament under a law passed last year.
Berlusconi loyalists insist this law should not apply in his case because the offences occurred before it was passed.