Future of Italy’s coalition hangs in the balance as Berlusconi plays the victim

Debate rages following conviction for tax evasion

 Former Italian prime minister  Silvio Berlusconi attends  the senate in Rome last month.  He said  this week  the ruling had confirmed his belief that a part of judiciary was out of control, claiming  he was the victim of a political witchhunt by left-wing magistrates. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi attends the senate in Rome last month. He said this week the ruling had confirmed his belief that a part of judiciary was out of control, claiming he was the victim of a political witchhunt by left-wing magistrates. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Sat, Aug 3, 2013, 01:00

In the wake of the tsunami that hit Italian politics on Thursday night, when former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was adjudged guilty of tax evasion via his Mediaset TV company, the future of the 100-day old Enrico Letta-led PD-PDL coalition government now hangs in the balance.

That, at least, would appear to be the obvious conclusion to be drawn from a tempestuous day after yesterday, marked by bellicose noises on the part of Berlusconi’s PDL party, by a relative silence from the centre-left PDs and by reassuring tones from Letta.

At a meeting with PDL parliamentarians last night, Berlusconi again touched on reform of the justice system, even suggesting that if it could be enacted immediately, then parliament should be dissolved and early elections called.

In response, Angelino Alfano, minister of the interior in the Letta government and PDL party secretary, said that he and the other PDL ministers were ready to resign immediately. Furthermore, senior PDL figures said that they would call on President Giorgio Napolitano to issue Berlusconi a presidential pardon.

At one point during a press conference in government house yesterday, Letta was asked if he did not feel at least a little embarrassment to find himself in government with a party whose leader had just been definitively condemned for tax fraud.

“Everyone has to assume responsibility for themselves, the interests of the country should come first and those interests involve doing things, all things, including the battle against tax evasion,” the suave and seemingly unruffled Letta answered.

The problem is that Italy’s supreme court on Thursday ruled definitively that the leader of Letta’s coalition government partners, the PDL, is a tax felon who will shortly have to serve a one-year prison sentence.

In fact, the court sentenced Berlusconi to four years but that has been reduced to one year under the terms of a 2006 “pardon” law introduced by Romano Prodi’s centre-left government.

Given his age, there has never been any possibility that Berlusconi (76) would serve the sentence in prison, thanks to a law passed by his own government in 2005 which precludes prison for defendants who are over 70 years old, provided they have a clean criminal record.

In other words, Berlusconi will have to serve his one-year sentence either under house arrest or via community service.

In practical terms, nothing happens until mid-September when Berlusconi will be formally notified of the judgment against him. At that point, he has a month in which to opt for either social services or house arrest.

In the meantime, the debate over his future raged hot and heavy in Rome yesterday.

His closest supporters in the PDL argued that despite his one-year sentence and a consequent prohibition from public life, Berlusconi would continue to lead the centre-right

“After Berlusconi there is only Berlusconi. The People of Freedom (PDL), Forza Italia, that is the biggest party in Italy today. One Italian in three will vote for the PDL, for Forza Italia, for Berlusconi,” said Renato Brunetta, PDL party whip in the Lower House.

Berlusconi himself had come out fighting late on Thursday in a nine-minute TV address in which he portrayed himself as a victim.

He said that the ruling had confirmed his belief that a part of judiciary was out of control, claiming yet again that he was the victim of a political witchhunt by left-wing magistrates.

Such was the “hatred” against him that he had featured in 50 investigations in the last 20 years.

In a speech that had echoes of his infamous “taking to the field” back in 1994, when he entered politics with the brand new Forza Italia party, Berlusconi said the ruling left him with no option but to “continue our battle for freedom”, calling the best young minds to the cause of a new, refounded Forza Italia.

High on the agenda of issues to be tackled by his new party, he suggested, would be reform of the Italian justice system.

In contrast, PD party secretary Guglielmo Epifani argued that the verdict “must be respected and applied”, calling on Berlusconi’s party not to “force matters” and thus risk the downfall of the Letta government.

Epifani knows only too well that PD grassroots support is now calling on the party to withdraw from the embarrassment of sharing government with a condemned felon.

In the meantime, nothing is more controversially eloquent than the front page headline on yesterday’s Il Fatto Quotidiano, an independent, leftist daily that has been unrelentingly critical of Berlusconi.

“The Delinquent has been Found Guilty – the Government is now a Dead Man Walking”.