Berlusconi still tries political influence

Updated: 2012-10-30 13:12


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ROME - The international headlines screamed "Berlusconi jailed for four years" on Friday as long-time opponents popped champagne corks outside the Milan court where the sentence was pronounced.

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty of tax fraud and was banned from holding public office for five years. After more than 2,500 appearances at over 30 court cases since he was first elected in 1994, here was a sentence that could finally bring him undone.

Berlusconi still tries political influence

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks during a news conference at Villa Gernetto in Gerno near Milan, in this Oct 27 file photo, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

The court found that the billionaire media tycoon had artificially inflated the price of distribution rights bought by his Mediaset empire and of creating foreign slush funds to avoid paying taxes in Italy. He and 10 other defendants were ordered to pay 10 million euros ($12.91 million)to Italian tax authorities.

Yet the sentence was immediately reduced to one year under a 2006 amnesty law. The former leader can also appeal the ruling two more times, and the statute of limitations could time out next year before the decision takes effect.

"He will not be convicted," Sergio Fabbrini, political science professor and head of the school of government at Rome's Luiss University, told Xinhua on Monday. "This will take some time, probably years. This is the first step of a three-step procedure."

Plenty of Italians rolled their eyes and said Berlusconi would never serve time, while some lamented the state of the economic crisis and longed for his return.

"He's a victim, a victim of the judiciary," said Alfredo, who sells fruit and vegetables from his family farm in a piazza in central Rome.

"Things were a lot better economically when he was in office," his son Marco added.

A court sentence of four year in jail could easily signal the end of any major political career, especially for someone like Berlusconi, who is also fighting charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute known as Ruby the Heart Stealer.

Yet the 76-year-old "bunga bunga" king remained defiant and called a media conference on Saturday to show he had no intention of reducing his political profile.

In fact he went one step further saying he could use his numbers to topple the Monti government which he accused of creating a "spiraling recession".

Just two days before Friday's court decision, Berlusconi, one of Italy's wealthiest men, announced he would not run in elections due in early 2013 as the leader of his People of Freedom (PdL) party.

But now he is saying his center-right party - the largest in parliament - would decide whether to end its support for Monti and provoke a snap election.

"In the next few days, we shall decide with the senior members of my party whether to withdraw confidence from the government or, given the closeness of the end of the legislature, leave it to work out its mandate," he said.

Berlusconi's opponents were horrified, but so were his allies.

Fabrizio Cicchitto, head of Berlusconi's PdL party in the lower house warned a crisis would cause an "explosion in the bond spreads," while former foreign affairs minister Franco Frattini stressed there was "continuing support for the government".

Even more significant were words of support from Berlusconi's protege and secretary of the PdL, Angelino Alfano, who broke his silence on Monday.

"As far as the government of (Mario) Monti concerns us, things are unchanged," Alfano said.

Monti, the dour academic appointed when Berlusconi was forced out of office a year ago, said he felt no threat from his predecessor as he emerged from talks with Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy in Madrid.

"We were asked to make a contribution in a difficult moment for this country. You cannot call something a threat that would take nothing away from us," Monti said.

Berlusconi could muster the numbers within the PdL and his disgruntled coalition partner the Northern League to bring Monti down but he no longer controls the party he created and there is even talk of a breakaway faction within.

"For the first time you now have people inside the party saying they don't want to follow him," said Professor Fabbrini, author of a book about Berlusconi's unique interpretation of power called 'Addomesticare il Principe' (or Taming the Prince).

"They fear they will not be re-elected. I don't know he can control the party in the way he thinks. Monti also has a popularity level of around 60 percent in Italy even after the tax increases and cuts."

After the drubbing dished out to the center-right in Sicily's regional elections on Sunday, Berlusconi will have even more trouble controlling his party.

In 2008, the PdL won 33.5 percent of the vote but after Berlusconi's conviction and major political scandals in Lazio and Lombardy, the party took only 12 percent on Sunday, sliding to the third place behind comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) and the center-left Democratic Party (PD).

Even worse was the news that over half of Sicily's voters snubbed the elections for a new governor and regional assembly in what is a prime example of the Italian public's disaffection with its political class.