Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ciao Silvio?

I was in Rome in 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi won his first election. I didn't know much about him, but what I knew I didn't like. Still, when his government fell later that year I assumed I'd never hear of him again.

Lesson 1 : Italian politics is not like ours.

Lesson 2 : Never, ever write off Silvio Berlusconi.

The journalist Curzio Maltese compares him to a serial killer in a Dario Argento movie; the figure that rears up from the dead, ready to strike, its plastic face immobile and impassive, just when the audience thinks it's safe to relax.

So you might have thought -  having lost his final appeal in the Court of Cassation, receiving a one year sentence of house arrest and a ban from public office - that the great pantomime villain of European politics was gone for good. Not a bit of it.

Firstly, he's not quite run out of appeals yet : he can appeal to the President for a pardon. His ego won't allow him to do this directly (it would, for one thing, actually mean admitting he was guilty), but his people immediately started putting pressure on Giorgio Napolitano to do so. Why on earth would he agree to do this? For the simple reason that Berlusconi has the ability to bring down the fragile coalition government of Enrico Letta. Napolitano desperately wants to avoid this - he knows that what Italy needs above all is a measure of stability, and a reform of its wretched electoral laws. None of this will be possible, for the foreseeable future, if Letta's coalition crumbles.

Nevertheless, it seems that Berlusconi may not call for a pardon. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, he has two upcoming trials and a further appeal in the "Ruby" case, and if he loses this one he faces a very stiff jail sentence indeed. In other words, it's not in his interests to use his "Get Out of Jail Free" card now when it might prove more useful in the future.

The other reason is : why blackmail the President when you can just blackmail the Government directly? As a result of his conviction he should, by law,  be automatically disqualified from public office for life. This does, however, require a vote by a majority of the Senate. The threat is : vote against me and I'll bring the
government down. And then, the next time my party returns to power we'll change the law to quash my conviction. And we'll give the legal system and the magistrates a good seeing-to as well.

Depressing? Yes. It's been a bad summer for Berlusconi, but it's not turning out to be a great one for Letta or Napolitano. He's down, but certainly not out, and - for the moment - he is going precisely nowhere.

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