Berlusconi neither down nor out despite a scandal-laden year

 

As he once again fights for political survival, it would be foolish to write off the tenacious Italian prime minister yet, writes PADDY AGNEWin Rome

AS WE start the new year, the fate, shape and likely direction of Italian political life continues, as it has done for much of the last 16 years, to revolve around the charismatic and forceful figure of the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

At the end of yet another “burlesque” year in office, marked by a variety of scandals (“Nadia”, “Ruby”, the “Bunga Bunga” and homophobic remarks, to name but some) that would have finished off any other western leader, Berlusconi may well have survived – but has he been seriously weakened?

At his traditional end of year news conference last week, it hardly seemed that way. Just days after he had successfully seen off his one-time ally, House Speaker Gianfranco Fini, in a parliamentary confidence vote that went his way by just three votes, the prime minister was his usually ebullient self.

Acknowledging that his narrow parliamentary majority may prove unworkable, Berlusconi revealed he had promised his government partner, the federalist Northern League, he would wait until next month to see how things developed.

If he had no solid majority, then “a new possibility” (an early election) might well be the best solution, he said.

In the meantime, however, he confirmed he would be out on the trail looking to win over disaffected supporters from Fini’s “Third Pole” (Terzo Polo), middle- of-the-road formation, as well as from others.

He claimed such negotiations would be “absolutely reasonable” if they helped avoid an early general election. To do so, he suggested, he would like to increase his Lower House support to 325 deputies (314 voted for him in the confidence vote).

In that same news conference, Berlusconi also managed to revive long-running speculation that he might one day move from the prime minister’s office to that of state president. Looking forward to the next scheduled elections in 2013 (early elections allowing), Berlusconi intriguingly suggested that he would almost definitely not be the centre-right candidate for prime minister, a position he has held on and off since 1994.

Curiously, however, he said the time had come for the president to be elected from the ranks of the centre right. (The current president Giorgio Napolitano comes from the Partito Democratico, PD, side of the house and was, of course, a member of the old Italian communist party, the PCI.)

Asked if he himself might be just such a centre-right candidate, Berlusconi coyly responded: “I have my own candidate in mind.”

Indeed he does.

If Berlusconi sounded anything other than despondent when weighing up his political options, he struck a familiarly defiant tone when considering one of the first big and all too familiar challenges of the new year: namely the expected ruling next month from the constitutional court on the legitimacy of the so-called “legitimate impediment” law that critics claim was introduced by his government purely to ensure him immunity from prosecution while in public office.

If the constitutional court were to rule against him, he said, he would be “out on the streets” and “on TV”, explaining to Italians the reality “of trials that are based on incredible, mad accusations”.

Given some of the things said recently by judges, he argued: “You cannot deny that among the magistrates, there is a will and a conspiracy towards political] aversion.” If the constitutional court were to rule against him next month, that would be “a political ruling”.

When asked if this was not a clear act of intimidation against the court, the prime minister replied: “Those guys [the court], they are not easily intimidated . . . I know that saying things like that damages me and my lawyers advise me not to, but . . . ”

Whatever else, it hardly sounds as if Mr Berlusconi is about to throw in the towel in 2011.