Can Europe Make It?

Berlusconi: has the Artful Dodger met his match?

Unlike Oliver Twist's friend, Berlusconi will not end up in a penal colony, or indeed in a prison cell, but will continue to be an uncomfortable presence in Italian political life. For how long?

Carlo Ungaro
11 August 2013
"Berlusconi go away". Flickr/Nela Lazarevic. Some rights reserved.

"Berlusconi go away". Flickr/Nela Lazarevic. Some rights reserved.

It is never easy to write about the Italian political situation, but after the verdict handed out by the highest court confirming a four year jail sentence for tax fraud against the previously indestructible former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, epochal questions arise over the future of Italy's fragile government, over Mr Berlusconi himself and, even more so, over the country's political destiny.

More than ever before, Mr Berlusconi’s actions and behaviour - such as his words of defiance against a "left-wing judicial conspiracy" - bring to mind Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger. However, unlike Oliver Twist's friend, Berlusconi will not end up in a penal colony, or indeed in a prison cell, but will continue to be an uncomfortable presence in Italian political life. The Cavaliere still poses a real threat to the stability and survival of the Letta government.

Can the government survive?

First of all, it is worth remembering that the present government in Italy has one of the largest majorities in the Republic’s history, bringing together (after weeks of sterile negotiations) the two main political parties, Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) and the Centre-Left Democratic Party (Pd), which were opponents in a cut-throat electoral campaign unprecedented for its acrimony and verbal violence.

But this vast, apparently unassailable majority does not keep the coalition government from being fragile and unstable. It is held together mainly by a shared fear of having to face an angry and disillusioned Italian electorate again. The February election cost both of the parties millions of votes, most of these going to Beppe Grillo’s maverick Five Stars Movement, a true thorn in the side of both leading parties.

After the verdict, delivered on 1 August, more than one political commentator has defined the government as a “dead man walking”. The main burden doesn't fall on Berlusconi’s movement, but on the majority Democratic Party which will have a difficult time explaining to supporters the decision to continue sharing the burdens of government with a party led by a convicted felon. The next few days, therefore, will be crucial in determining whether the “grand coalition” experiment has any chance of survival beyond the summer.

After 100 days in which virtually nothing has been achieved, one has the eerie feeling of witnessing a strange situation in which the members of the government are clinging to a raft floating down, and out of control, a treacherous river. They know that the rapids are not far away, but dare not touch the shores (i.e. end the experiment and call early elections) because they know that these are populated by hostile tribes. Hence the brave insistence that “the show must go on” for the good of the country. 

The prevailing feeling, however, is that sooner or later some catalytic event will cause the government’s implosion. The only question is now how long this situation can endure.

Berlusconi’s fate

What about Berlusconi himself? Has he really reached the end of his political career? Many would like to think so, but he has been written off more than once in the past - always managing to stage an incredible comeback.

According to recent legislation, no person sentenced to two years or more in prison is allowed to sit in Parliament. Here comes the first of many uncertainties regarding Berlusconi's future: he has been sentenced to four years, but, because of the intricacies of the Italian penal code, the first three years of his sentence are condoned, and so, “de facto”, he should serve only one year. An ardent political-legal battle will most likely take place to determine which of these terms needs to be considered, and further doubts arise as to whether the Democratic Party will, in any case, find the political courage to vote for the removal from the Senate of the leader of their principal ally in government.

By the end of October, an additional sentence of an up to three years ban from public office will probably be issued, but this certainly won't stop Berlusconi from running his political party “from the outside”, just as Beppe Grillo has done, being interdicted from seeking office because of a previous penal sentence. By playing the part of an innocent victim of a “left-wing judicial conspiracy”, Berlusconi could even increase his party’s (as well as his own) popularity - and cause further turmoil on the Italian political scene. The paradox here is that the Democratic Party might end up being damaged more than any other protagonist because of a verdict against its main opponent.

There has been insistent talk of asking the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, to grant Berlusconi a “presidential pardon”, but it is unlikely this will happen, especially when one considers the fact that Berlusconi is facing even stiffer sentences in the near future, for crimes of a grave nature, among which is the accusation of having had sexual relations with a minor.

Many now ask – has Berlusconi's luck finally turned? There are, perhaps, signs that the times are changing in the Peninsula. Last Sunday, a large demonstration of Berlusconi supporters was planned in the centre of Rome. Buses were laid on, and the participants were offered a free meal. The crowd was vociferous, but disappointingly scanty. This is without doubt a factor that Berlusconi needs to consider before taking any potentially rash decisions – for the moment, Berlusconi is still officially backing the government.

Italy’s political future

But the real question goes well beyond Berlusconi’s personal fate or the government’s immediate chances of survival, and has to do with the future of the democratic process itself in a country in the throes of an economic, political and moral crisis unprecedented since the immediate post-war years.

Italian history shows that a state of turmoil and confrontation has been a constant for centuries, and that Italians have always overcome their difficulties, mainly by shrugging them off as matters concerning “others” (i.e. the Pope and the Emperor in the distant past, the political parties or the “Caste” in the present day). This attitude of cynical sagacity may, however, no longer be an option, given the keenly-felt apprehensions for the future, combined with the dramatic fall in the standard of living, with no prospect of a turn-around in sight.

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