Cracks are beginning to appear in the Italian Prime Minister's conservative coalition.
The Constitutional Court, Italy's highest judicial authority, struck down last week a law that granted four top representatives of the state - the Prime Minister, the President and the speakers of the National Assembly and Senate - immunity from prosecution while in office.
The law, which was written into the statute books with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's economic and legal interests in mind and passed in 2008 when his conservative coalition had a thumping majority in parliament, was used by the Italian Premier to avoid being charged on several counts of corruption, forgery and fraud.
But Mr. Berlusconi, who has been embroiled in sex scandals these past months, described the court's decision to strike down his immunity as "absurd" and said he and his government would "forge calmly ahead" in the face of this new crisis. Calling the trials "false, laughable, absurd," Mr. Berlusconi said: "I will show this to Italians by going on television, and I will defend myself in the courtroom and make my accusers look ridiculous and show everyone what stuff they are made of and what stuff I am made of."
The Constitutional Court was "politicised," Mr. Berlusconi said, attacking in the same breath Italy's respected President, Giorgio Napolitano, who, he said, was "biased" against his government. The ruling means that criminal trials against the premier for bribery, embezzlement and fraud will resume in the coming months.
For years, Mr. Berlusconi has used every trick in the legal book to fend off prosecution. But the Court's decision comes at a particularly delicate and difficult time for the septuagenarian prime minister. He is now particularly vulnerable because Italy's influential Catholic Church has expressed its displeasure at his alleged sexual shenanigans at a time when ambitious younger men from his own coalition are chafing at the bit to grab the mantle of power. The judges' decision opens a new front against the beleaguered Mr. Berlusconi.
Despite the brave face he has put on his recent political and marital troubles, scoffing at charges that he used the services of prostitutes as a cabal against him concocted by the media, a predominantly hostile, left-wing judiciary and opposition politicians, cracks are beginning to appear in his conservative coalition.
And the knives are being sharpened. Mr. Berlusconi's top ally, Gianfranco Fini, the co-founder of the prime minister's People of Liberty party criticised him for attacking the Constitutional Court and its ruling, underscoring a widening rift within the ruling coalition. But other allies expressed unqualified support for their leader since the ruling.
"The trials aren't going to be enough to force him to resign," said respected commentator Paolo Romani, "but his image has been unbelievably tarnished. Italians want a government that can seriously run the country, not a prime minister who spends all his time fighting court cases and fending off criticism and his allies may be coming to the same conclusion."
Stefano Folli, a political columnist for the financial daily newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore said: "This is the most difficult day for Berlusconi since he entered political life. The government won't fall over this, but as prime minister he is weaker than he has ever been."
The Constitutional Court struck down the immunity-while-in-office for Italy's top four on the grounds that it violated a clause in the Constitution granting citizens equality under the law. It was a short, six-line ruling but one which has suddenly made the 73-year-old Prime Minister's economic future and political survival decidedly clouded.
Many Italians have applauded the court's decision. In successive opinion polls a majority of Italians have said they considered the law granting immunity "outrageous." By overturning the law, the Constitutional Court upheld the fundamental democratic principle that no one, however rich or powerful, can stand above the law, despite the immunity granted by a pliant parliament. "The fact that the opposition doesn't exist has given the courts the absolutely inappropriate role of opposition," Mr. Folli said.
It is unclear how the Court's decision will play out and if it will prevent Mr. Berlusconi from serving out the rest of his term. The court's decision revives three pending cases against Mr. Berlusconi. In one, a British lawyer has already been convicted of accepting $600,000 to give false testimony to shield Mr. Berlusconi in two corruption trials. In another, the prime minister - who is also one of Italy's wealthiest men - is accused of tax fraud in connection with the expansion of his private media empire. In the third and weakest case, he is accused of trying to bribe members of Parliament to join his ruling coalition.
Mr. Berlusconi has repeatedly accused Italy's judiciary of being left wing and therefore viscerally hostile to him. Late Wednesday, Mr. Berlusconi went on television to insist that he would serve out his mandate until 2013, calling the Constitutional Court "not an organ of guarantee, but a political organ" and once again trotting out his familiar accusations against the magistrates.
Unfortunately, there appear to be no truly competent and credible politicians in Italy today who could win a sizeable majority and steer the country towards economic reform and pull it out of a deep recession. The centre-left is both fractured and demoralised while Mr. Berlusconi's own coalition is rife with internal dissent.
Although still popular with his fellow citizens, Mr. Berlusconi's ratings have been on the decline. His popularity, which was as high as 62 per cent a year ago, fell to 47 per cent according to a survey published on September 16. But despite these setbacks he continues to remain Italy's most popular politician.
Other European nations are concerned over Mr. Berlusconi's buffoonery, its effect on Italy's image and Italy's poor economic performance. With Mr. Berlusconi's repeated gaffes, Italy is becoming a bit of an embarrassment to its EU partners. Italy's well-wishers are waiting impatiently for the day when Italians will wake from their prolonged love affair with a man most see as self-serving, amoral and corrupt. "When oh when will the scales fall from Italian eyes?" sighed writer Marc Lazar, a keen observer of Italian society.