UPDATE 2-Italy's Conte survives Senate vote, keeps fragile government afloat
* PM Conte wins but fails to secure absolute majority
* Result leaves him in power, but weakened
* Crisis triggered when party of ex-PM Renzi quit coalition (Recasts after vote)
ROME, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte won a confidence vote in the upper house Senate on Tuesday, allowing him to remain in office after a junior partner quit his coalition last week in the midst of the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
He failed to secure an absolute majority, however, meaning that Conte now heads a minority government that will struggle to implement its policy program in the divided parliament unless it can flip some opposition lawmakers over the coming weeks.
Having overcome a similar confidence motion in the lower house on Monday, Conte won in the 321-seat Senate by 156 to 140, with 16 abstentions.
Had he lost, he would have had to resign, thrusting Italy deeper into political turmoil and potentially opening the way to new national elections, two years ahead of schedule.
The small Italia Viva party, headed by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, abandoned the cabinet in a row over Conte's handling of the coronavirus health crisis and economic recession. It abstained on Tuesday, leaving the door open for a possible return to the coalition if its policy demands are met.
Conte and his main partners, the 5-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party (PD), appeared unwilling to kiss and make up.
"You have chosen the path of aggression and media attacks ... this is not the best choice for the interests of the country," said Conte, a lawyer with no party affiliation, addressing the Italia Viva senators.
Looking to entice centrist and liberal lawmakers currently outside the coalition, Conte has promised to revamp his policy agenda and shake up his cabinet, saying he wanted to modernize Italy and speed up implementation of an economic recovery plan.
In the event, only two members of the opposition center-right Forza Italia party switched sides on Tuesday, while a number of unaligned politicians who had come under heavy pressure to help the government ended up voting against Conte.
The prime minister is expected to continue seeking fresh support in the coming days to try give himself more of a cushion in parliament.
Italy has had several minority governments in recent times, but history has shown they are highly vulnerable to ambush in parliament and risk collapse at any divisive vote.
"There will be lots of drama and it will be hard to get anything done," said Giovanni Orsina, head of LUISS university's school of government in Rome.
He predicted the government would collapse in the summer, when a six-month moratorium on national elections kicks in ahead of the end of President Sergio Mattarella's 7-year mandate.
Analysts say many lawmakers want to avoid an early ballot, fearing they will not be re-elected next time around. As a result, some of them played it safe this week and helped Conte stay in office. But as soon as the moratorium kicks in, removing any threat of a vote, they would move to oust Conte and try to form a new administration, Orsina said. (Additional reporting by Gavin Jones; editing by Philippa Fletcher, John Stonestreet and Sonya Hepinstall)
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