ROME Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano survived a no-confidence vote on Friday, averting a political crisis that could have brought down the fragile coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Alfano, secretary of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom party (PDL) which governs in an uneasy partnership with its traditional rivals in Letta's center-left Democratic Party (PD), faced calls to resign over the hurried deportation of the family of a dissident Kazakh oligarch in May.
A no-confidence motion filed by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the leftist Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) party was defeated in the Senate by 226 votes to 55.
The outcome of the vote was expected after Letta's PD confirmed on Thursday it would back Alfano, despite widespread unease in the party over the Kazakh affair and calls from some center-left lawmakers to vote for his removal.
A scandal over the expulsion of the wife and six-year-old daughter of fugitive Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov after a midnight police raid on their villa in a Rome suburb threw Letta's government into its deepest crisis since it was formed in April after a long hiatus following a deadlocked election last February.
PDL officials said before the vote that the government would fall if Alfano were forced to resign, an outcome head of state Giorgio Napolitano said on Thursday would have "irreversible" consequences for Italy on financial markets.
Alfano told parliament this week that he had not been informed by his officials of the raid and deportation order, which the government has since reversed, and his chief of staff has resigned over the affair.
But doubts remain over an operation which United Nations' human rights experts have compared to an "extraordinary rendition" or the abduction of U.S. terrorism suspects to countries where they could be tortured.
The case has raised suspicions that the unusually swift expulsion of Ablyazov's wife, Alma Shalabayeva and their daughter Auna was ordered as a favor to energy-rich Kazakhstan, a key trade partner, which has been strongly criticized for its human rights record.
"We still need to know what arguments, what reasons, what influences set in motion the actions of the Italian police in investigating and enforcing this," PD Senate leader Luigi Zanda said during the confidence debate.
Italian newspapers quoted police documents on Friday as describing the close involvement of the Kazakh ambassador in preparing the raid on Ablyazov's villa on the night of May 28-29 through contacts with several senior police and interior ministry officials.
Ablyazov himself was not at home at the time but his wife and daughter were hustled on to a private plane to Kazakhstan within 48 hours, despite holding valid permits to stay in the European Union. They are currently in Kazakhstan and have been refused permission to leave, with Shalabayeva accused of involvement in bribery and passport offences.
Letta ordered a full inquiry into the affair, which President Napolitano described on Thursday as "inconceivable", singling out the pressure exerted by the Kazakh ambassador on police officials for particular criticism.
Whether or not Friday's vote draws a line under the affair, pressure will continue on the government.
A verdict is expected on Friday in the trial in Milan of three associates of Silvio Berlusconi accused of procuring an underage prostitute for the PDL leader and former prime minister.
Berlusconi, who is fighting a conviction in a related case, is awaiting a ruling by Italy's highest court at the end of July on his final appeal against a conviction for tax fraud which would ban him from public office if confirmed.
The outcome of that case and its impact on the government remains highly unpredictable despite assurances from both Berlusconi and Letta that it will not threaten the coalition's survival.
(Additional reporting by Paolo Biondi and Roberto Landucci; editing by Barry Moody)