Italian government ‘now a dead man walking’

Country braced for fallout from court ruling on Berlusconi’s tax evasion

A file image of  Silvio Berlusconi who has a month to  opt for either social services or house arrest.  Photograph: Reuters

A file image of Silvio Berlusconi who has a month to opt for either social services or house arrest. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, Aug 2, 2013, 13:09

Italy is bracing itself for the fallout from yesterday’s controversial court ruling in which centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi received a four-year prison sentence for tax evasion on the part of his Mediaset TV company.

The Supreme Court ruling represented the third and definitive level of judgment which means that, in some shape or form, Mr Berlusconi will have to serve out a sentence of one year, either under house arrest or by community service.

The sentence is reduced from four years to one because of a 2006 “pardon” law introduced by Romano Prodi’s centre-left government.

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

Mr Berlusconi’s lawyers argue that community service represents a better choice because it affords the convicted person more freedom than house arrest, where his movements and his access to the outside world would be both limited and carefully monitored.

In the meantime, as is his wont, Mr Berlusconi late last night came out fighting, opting to portray himself in the role of victim in a nine minute TV address to the nation.

He said yesterday’s ruling had confirmed his belief that part of judiciary was out of control and, indeed, had been out of control since the infamous Tangentopoli corruption scandals of the early 1990s.

Mr Berlusconi claimed he had done nothing wrong whilst he asked if it was right that as a reward for his contribution to Italian public life, he should be the object of a total judicial “hatred” that has seen him feature in “50” different cases over 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, Mr Berlusconi said that yesterday’s 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 other words, although he has just been found guilty of tax evasion and although that verdict could well see him cast out of parliament this autumn, 76-year-old Mr Berlusconi intends to remain politically active.

To control the destiny of a party from outside parliament is not without precedent since that is exactly what the unelected, former comedian Beppe Grillo does with his M5S protest movement.

Inevitably, many observers now wonder how long the current national coalition PDL-PD government can survive.

Whilst Mr Berlusconi is almost certain to instruct his People of Freedom (PDL) party to hang on in there, it could be the Democratic Party (PD) who have the greatest difficulty sustaining the Enrico Letta led coalition.

PD grass roots support, always unenthusiastic about a PDL-PD coalition, is now likely to call on the party to withdraw from the embarrassment of sharing government with a condemned felon.

Senior PD figure Pippo Civati called on his party to quickly implement electoral reform and then call an immediate general election rather remaining in government with the Berlusconi party.

PD party secretary, Guglielmo Epifani, seemed to pre-empt a government crisis when he said that the verdict “must be respected and applied” calling on Mr. Berlusconi’s party not to “force matters”.

For months now, both the PD and the PDL have tried to convince public opinion that the country can separate the fate of the government from that of the defendant Berlusconi. It may well be that the coming months will show that this is simply impossible.

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

“The Delinquent Has Been Found Guilty – The Government Is Now A Dead Man Walking”.