Monday, 5 August 2013

ITALY: Berlusconi & Italian Politics

Thousands of supporters of Silvio Berlusconi descended on his palatial Rome residence on Sunday as the billionaire politician protested his innocence but indicated that for the moment his support for the government would remain.

Playing the former prime minister's campaign anthem on a loop, a vocal section of the almost 10 million people who voted for his centre-right Freedom People Party in February's elections turned out to voice their anger at last week's verdict by the supreme court. The ruling – Berlusconi's first definitive conviction – has raised serious concerns for the future of Enrico Letta's coalition government, of which the Freedom People Party is a vital junior partner. But on Sunday the 76-year-old said he continued to back the fragile set-up.

On Thursday, a court convicted former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a legally binding ruling for the first time. But it referred a decision on a ban on political office back to a lower court. For now, he will continue to play a major role in Italian politics.

In a televised address two and half hours after the ruling, Berlusconi denied all guilt, saying he had never engaged in tax evasion or any other crime. "We must continue to fight and engage in politics," he said.

Despite the sentence, the 76-year-old will not have to face any time in jail -- partly because he is over 70. And of the four years in his sentence, three have been removed because of an immunity law (one of the few he didn't actually push through parliament himself). That leaves just one year that Berlusconi can either complete with community service or, as is widely expected, through house arrest.

Although that may not sound tragic for a billionaire with an opulent apartment in Rome's city center, and villas near Milan and on the island of Sardinia, it still has the potential to dramatically alter a person's life -- particularly if that person is a politician. He could still attend party meetings, but he would have to get permission before leaving his home or speaking to the press from one of the very judges he so despises.

Berlusconi will probably also have to give up his globally famous nickname, "Il Cavaliere." Berlusconi was once bestowed with the honor of the order of merit by an Italian president, but convicted criminals are not allowed to keep it.

Still, being banned from office would have been a far more severe punishment for Berlusconi, who remains a senator in Italy. He wouldn't have been allowed to run in new elections and would have lost his vote and his seat in the Senate. It would have been an extremely uncomfortable decision for the Italian coalition government, which is comprised of Berlusconi supporters and foes who have come together out of sheer necessity. For now, the decision has been delayed.

In that sense, even if the ruling is unobjectionable in a legal sense, it can still be described as a political one. It means the government, for which there appears to be no real alternative in Italy at the moment, is spared of a major test of its strength in the Senate. It also means that Berlusconi can continue to hold his office, as it is uncertain when the Milan court will rule on whether he should lose that privilege. Public prosecutors have already said they want to reduce their request for a ban on office from five to three years.

So Berlusconi will remain a part of Italian politics. He's already announced his latest plans, too. This autumn, he wants to revive his dissolved Forza Italia party. Berlusconi began his political career with the party, named after a football song, in 1994. Despite his conviction, Berlusconi may still be in the game.

Berlusconi's Freedom People Party -- or Forza Italia, which Berlusconi announced would soon be revived -- would fall apart without him. And without their shared enemy, the various factions of the social-democratic Partito Democratico (PD) would also cave in. That the two parties of the fraught grand coalition cannot reconcile their differences is just a minor detail. At least it exists. And to survive, it needs Berlusconi, regardless of his criminal conviction.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit AFP-Berlusconi's supporters