After a long and rather tense day, the verdict, after many hours of deliberation by the judges of Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation finally arrived: Silvio Berlusconi is guilty of tax fraud and the 4 year custodial sentence stands, came the announcement.
The surprise was that the ban on Berlusconi from holding public office was not upheld. Not for the moment, anyway. Italy’s Cassation Court ordered that the matter of the ban be re-heard by a lower court.
Initially, a 5 year ban from public office had been ordered, but this was reduced to 3 years after prosecutors in the Cassation Court noted that Italy’s law only provides for a 1 to 3 year ban in tax fraud cases.
Berlusconi Won’t Go to Prison
The 4 year sentence has been automatically reduced to 1 by Italian law. As the condemned man is over 70, he won’t be slapped in jail. Instead, Berlusconi will face either house arrest or will be placed under the supervision of Italy’s social services while he does some form of community service.
Officially though, Berlusconi’s jail sentence still stands at 4 years. This is significant, as you will learn later.
Last night, Berlusconi was reeling from the shock of the conviction – he thought he was untouchable.
Being rich, powerful, and a major employer and tax payer, Berlusconi believed the accusation he had engineered the evasion of around €7 million was insignificant. Italy’s law did not see it that way. Under Italy’s constitution, all are equal in the eyes of the law. Yesterday, Berlusconi was shown to be no more or less equal than any other Italian who had committed a crime.
The Defence Didn’t Defend Silvio
Despite the defence arguments of some of Italy’s best lawyers, Berlusconi’s guilt, previously established by two lower courts, was confirmed.
Up to yesterday, even after many court cases, Berlusconi had never been found guilty of anything. Other courts had come close to establishing his guilt, but changes to laws and time barring provisions meant the cases fizzled out before they could be concluded. Berlusconi thought the same would happen in the Mediaset tax fraud case. He was wrong. In fact, Italy’s legal system, much to the chagrin of Berlusconi’s lawyers, moved at double, if not triple, quick time to ensure the case was not shut down by Italy’s statute of limitations.
Berlusconi who had maintained his innocence to the last, continues to dispute the decision of Italy’s courts. Yesterday evening he released a video in which he lambasted, some, elements in Italy’s magistrature for persecuting him through the years. He believes he’s the most persecuted man in Italy’s history. Berlusconi’s lawyers may take the case before the European Court of Human Rights, though this has not been confirmed.
The Consequences for Berlusconi
While he has not been banned from holding public office, yet, a 2012 law designed to reduce corruption in Italy means that in all likely hood Berlusconi is no longer eligible to stand for re-election because the jail sentence he received exceeds 2 years. This will take Berlusconi out of Italian politics directly, but, and like his adversary Beppe Grillo, who also has a conviction, Berlusconi can set himself up as an external leader and keep pulling all the strings. This appears to be the direction Berlusconi has opted to take. And he still thinks he can convince Italians to vote for him.
If they do choose to vote for his party, he won’t be able to use his ‘cavaliere’ – ‘knight’ title as a boasting point when campaigning, for this is likely to be stripped from him owing to the Mediaset tax fraud conviction.
Soon enough we will discover what kind of punishment will be metered out to Berlusconi. Although he claimed, and then denied, that he wanted to go to jail, what is much more likely is that he will be placed under house arrest.
Stop reading, start speaking
Stop translating in your head and start speaking Italian for real with the only audio course that prompt you to speak.
Now, Berlusconi possesses at least three palatial villas throughout Italy, so I really have no idea in which house he’ll have to stay. The bunga bunga villa in Arcore near Milan? The super villa in Sardinia with a mock volcano and underground swimming grotto? Or his recently acquired estate in Tuscany? Then there’s his place in Rome. Italian publication Linkiesta joked that Berlusconi may have to face house arrest in his late mother’s 70 square meter apartment in Milan. We’ll see.
As one might imagine, lots of people have been offering suggestions for the type of community service Berlusconi could do. Mention has been made of everything from scooping dog poop off the streets of Milan to helping out at a center for disadvantaged women.
The Consequences for Italy
In Italy, where Italians have long suspected Berlusconi is a criminal, the announcement by the Court of Cassation which confirmed Berlusconi’s guilt merely served to confirm suspicions.
Today in my local coffee bar in Milan, I overheard two Italians talking about the Berlusconi case. In essence their comments were that Berlusconi’s conviction will not make a huge difference to the way Italy is. Berlusconi, in their opinion, is simply one of many thieving politicians, although one man who mentioned Craxi did not consider Berlusconi to be a politician at all. To him Berlusconi is just one of the vultures who illicitly squeeze as much cash as they can out Italy’s dysfunctional system. The squeezing will continue, Berlusconi conviction or not.
The big question is just what effect Berlusconi’s conviction will have on the stability of Italy’s government. On the run up to the final appeal hearing, Berlusconi PdL party politicians threatened to resign en masse if their glorious leader was convicted. So far, only a couple of Berlusconi politicians has made noises about resigning. Berlusconi babe MP Michaela Biancofiore, who claimed Berlusconi’s conviction is an apocalypse for Italy, says she’s going to offer her resignation to Berlusconi. He probably won’t accept it claiming she should stay on for the good of the, soon to be extinct, PdL party.
Aside from the future of Berlusconi’s party which would simply fizzle away if Berlusconi decides to withdraw from politics, there’s the future of Italy’s extremely fragile grand coalition government. The left leaning elements of the coalition – the PD and SEL – will not be happy to be allied with a party led by a convicted criminal and may decide to stop voting. Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement will offer the current government no support at all.
For now, it looks as if Berlusconi’s own party will continue to support the Letta led coalition. However, the danger to the stability of Italy’s government does not really come from Berlusconi’s people. It is far more likely the disgruntled left will bring about the disintegration of the current coalition. Berlusconi’s people know that if they drop support for the government now, their chances of earning votes in elections will fall markedly. Pretending to be responsible is the preferred tactic of the PdL. This stance may change.
What may well happen in the near future, after the August holidays, is that a confidence vote will be employed to test whether or not the Letta government is still able to function. If it is not, one scenario – before elections are called, may be a short lived technocrat government which will be formed to pass a new electoral law. If the electoral reform law is not passed, Italy risks ending up with yet another non-government in the form of a very wobbly left-right coalition. While there are a few vague signs Italy is drawing itself out of it current recession, the last thing nation needs is yet another unstable government.
Somewhat surprisingly, it seems that Italy’s President Napolitano wants to push for reforms to Italy’s justice system – reforms which would give Italy’s politicians more direct influence over the administration of justice. Such reforms would more or less ensure dodgy politicians like Berlusconi would never, ever be convicted again. Unsurprisingly, Silvio Berlusconi supports such reforms too.
My prediction is that, after a short spell of technocrat government, elections will be held in early 2014. Who will be elected? Sorry, but at this point, I really have no idea at all. It could be Grillo’s 5 Star Movement or a new left leaning party headed by one Matteo Renzi. Then again, it could be another of the Berlusconi clan – Marina, Berlusconi’s daughter is being lined up to keep the Berlusconi family brand, and money, in Italian politics.
Italy is about to enter very stormy waters and its already limping political system risks stalling. Whether Italy’s fragile economy will survive what comes next remains to be seen. The world will be watching Italy too.