The Italian Supreme Court has confirmed Silvio Berlusconi’s four-year prison sentence for tax evasion and fraud. The court, however, asked a lower court to re-calculate the period of time he will be barred from holding public office. The lower court had condemned him to five years.
The 76-year-old former Prime Minister, Italy’s richest and still extremely powerful man is unlikely to go to jail because of his advanced age. He could do a year’s public service in lieu of some prison time or remain confined to his house.
The court’s decision late on Thursday, though long awaited, had the effect of a bomb with television news channels going into overdrive. Television sets blared out the news and commentary during the lunch hour in countless trattorias and pizzerias across the country. Over lunch this was the top subject of conversation.
“I cannot believe it, he is gone, he is finally gone”, exclaimed journalist Thesy Bastaroli . “But attention we cannot write him off. He is clever and has a pack of very clever lawyers working for him.”
If the five-year ban on him holding public office is reduced to one or three years he will surely be back. He has enough power and influence to keep his pot boiling for a year. Maybe even three although that is less likely,” said Ms. Bastaroli.
Mr. Berlusconi has been prosecuted for over 20 years for various crimes including bribery, fraud tax evasion and sex offences but has always managed to stay one step ahead of a jail term through a lengthy appeals process or because the statute of limitations has kicked in and proceedings have been dropped. This time it’s final. Mr. Berlusconi has exhausted the appeals process.
Within minutes of his condemnation, Mr Berlusconi issued an angry video recording in which he swore to fight on, saying he would re-launch his Forza Italia party that first brought him to politics in 1994. In the video, he said his country had “forgotten how to be just”. Barely able to mask his emotion and in a voice that at times threatened to break, he said he was an innocent who had fallen victim to “an astonishing series of accusations and trials that have nothing to do with reality but which have deprived me of my rights and freedom”. Promising to fight on, Mr. Berlusconi urged his supporters to remain by his side. “This condemnation has no basis. It is a judicial witch-hunt. We must carry on the political fight to introduce necessary reforms, including of the judiciary,” he said.
The court’s decision has already begun to shake fragile edifice of the government of Enerico Letta.
Mr. Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party has several Ministers in the Letta government.
Some of Mr Letta’s left-wing coalition partners, particularly from the Democratic Party (PD) have already begun voicing their concern about serving alongside a party whose leader who is a convicted felon and has been barred from holding public office. The PD could call for fresh elections in the face of this crisis. Guglielmo Epifani who heads the PD said his party would carefully monitor the behaviour of Mr Berlusconi’s supporters.
“I call on Mr Berlusconi’s PDL to show responsibility,” he warned.
The former Prime Minister is a deeply divisive and polarising force in Italian politics. A section of Italy, especially the educated middle classes, academics and intellectual elites are delighted to see him “if not gone at least neutralised for the time being”, according to social psychologist Sylvia Natoli. But an eventual and even fairly quick return cannot be ruled out, especially if a court now reduces the public office ban from five to one year. “It is possible. Very possible. Berlusconi is one of those persons who is constantly reborn. I wonder how one could describe his karma”, said Ms. Natoli with a twinkle. “But we have all been made to feel so ashamed of Italy because of the outrageous behaviour of this one man that a large part of this country will now breathe a sigh of relief,” she concluded.
Mr. Berlusconi continues to draw huge support from Italy’s vast network of small entrepreneurs and family-owned businesses and those who see no hope in the fractious coalitions that have marked political instability. “They see him as someone who is clever and rich, as someone who has outwitted the system. These are the tax evaders, the get-rich quick types. That is all a certain class of Italians aspires to. There is no sense of right or wrong. Self-indulgence and instant gratification is what Berlusconi represents and what his supporters desire for themselves. A chasm separates the Italy I would like and the country Mr. Berlusconi represents and there is no meeting ground between the two,” explains Ms. Natoli.
In June, another court had condemned Mr. Berlusconi to seven years in prison for the rubygate scandal in which he was accused of having paid sex with a minor. His appeal against that sentence is still before the courts. Another appeal for yet another alleged crime is pending.