ROME - Italy entered a period of political transformation on Thursday after Silvio Berlusconi's historic ouster from parliament, with the billionaire tycoon humiliated and assailed by legal woes but now a force in opposition.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta's ruling coalition will survive the withdrawal of support by Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, thanks to the defection of some of his former proteges who will stay on in the government.
But while he is a figure of fun around the world, Berlusconi is still a formidable campaigner who can continue as a figurehead leader even if he is banned from running for election for the next six years.
"Silvio Berlusconi's political story did not end yesterday with his expulsion as senator," Roberto D'Alimonte, one of Italy's top political experts, wrote in the business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
"The Cavaliere leaves parliament but not politics, at least not for now. In fact we should not forget that he still has six-seven million loyal voters on his side."
Berlusconi was in turns defiant and humble in a speech to thousands of supporters on Wednesday just minutes before the Senate declared his expulsion, donning the mantle of victimhood and vowing "a fight for liberty".
He promised to hold another rally next Sunday to celebrate the founding of the first 1,000 "Go Silvio" fan clubs around the country and said he was staying to protect "our right, our assets and our freedom".
Some experts are predicting a populist campaign from Berlusconi, known for his anti-tax, anti-Europe rhetoric, but others say the ejection and Letta's government could gain as the economy improves.
"His exclusion from parliament puts him in a precarious condition... and if this is not the end, it is clearly the beginning of a decline that could be quick," said Marcello Sorgi, the editor of La Stampa daily.
A bellwether of Berlusconi's continuing influence could be the European Parliament elections in May 2014.
But the 77-year-old's bid to stay on could be hampered on the legal front more than at the ballot box.
As part of the tax fraud conviction for which he was booted out of parliament, Berlusconi will have to serve 12 months of either house arrest or community service in which his freedom of movement will be curtailed.
The sentence is to be implemented early next year and at the end of 2014 Berlusconi could face definitive conviction for having sex with an underage prostitute and abusing the powers of the prime minister's office - which could force him into house arrest for years.
As an ex-senator, he has also lost his parliamentary immunity which makes him more vulnerable to arrest in any of multiple other legal proceedings against him.
Berlusconi's defeat at the hands of fellow senators instead of through the ballot box left a bitter taste even among some of his most virulent critics.
"There is no doubt that yesterday marked the end of an era that has lasted for 20 years," said Stefano Folli, a columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore.
But he added: "We would have preferred a different and less bitter end, for us and for our national dignity."
Letta's more immediate danger could be "friendly fire" from an ambitious centre-left politician, Matteo Renzi.
The 38-year-old mayor of Florence is almost certain to be voted in as head of the main Democratic Party next Sunday and has become increasingly critical of Letta's government in his quest for the party leadership.
"This government cannot continue pretending that everything has stayed the same. We have to turn things around," Renzi said in an interview with the Corriere della Sera daily, adding: "Otherwise, it's over".