Italy's highest court has handed ex-leader Silvio Berlusconi a final conviction for tax fraud. But house arrest rather than a jail sentence is looming. And political reverberations could affect the country's government.
A group of Berlusconi supporters gathered in front of the Palace of Justice in Milan following Berlusconi's definitive conviction by the Roman Court of Cassation, Italy's highest court. It was a spontaneous get-together in support of their idol. The lawsuits against Silvio Berlusconi were "political court cases," a man in his 50s muttered angrily. A woman who looked to be the same age vigorously nodded her head in agreement.
Curious or even amused, people passing on the street peered at the posters the group held high, describing Berlusconi as politically persecuted. Annarita Galbiati, who was on her way home, had no sympathy for the ex-prime minister, but expressed a sinking feeling all the same: "I didn't vote for him, and don't like him much. But the prosecution really zeroed in on him - that was exaggerated."
On the other hand, people who for years had no desire to vote for Silvio Berlusconi were pleased. As far as they are concerned, his political career should end - the sooner the better. While the decision by the Court of Cassation upheld the jail sentence for tax fraud, it also said an appeals court should rule on whether Berlusconi could be temporarily banned from public office.
But for the time being, Silvio Berlusconi has nothing to worry about politically. The media tycoon and leader of the People of Freedom party also doesn't have to worry about going to jail - at 76, he is too old.
Opposition politician Nando dalla Chiesa has a vivid image of Berlusconi's house arrest in a beautiful villa with a swimming pool and a garden full of flowers. "It is what we would consider a vacation. From there, he will give speeches to the nation. His TV station will broadcast them and depict him as a political prisoner."
Silvio Berlusconi already spoke to the nation right after his conviction. He denied ever having "set up a tax fraud system" and declared he has, to the contrary, "contributed to Italy's prosperity." He called some of the judges "irresponsible," saying they were intent on legal persecution. Berlusconi added that he would continue to "fight for freedom."
The question remains as to what the political ramifications are for Italy. The country is in a difficult economic situation, requiring weeks to form a stable government following parliamentary elections in February 2013.
Berlusconi's People of Freedom party is part of the ruling coalition. Berlusconi's stalwart and deputy party leader Angelino Alfano holds the posts of interior minister and vice prime minister. Party hardliners had threatened to leave the government, should the court uphold the conviction against their boss. They have since softened their stance: "Our protest will be fierce, but it will be within the institutional framework," fellow party member Roberto Formigoni said.
Were the party to withdraw from the coalition, the left-right government under Prime Minister Enrico Letta would fall. Milan political scientist Paolo Natale said this would approximate the party shooting itself in the foot, adding that is something Berlusconi should be smart enough to avoid. "IfBerlusconi's party stays in power, it will have time to regenerate," Natale said. "If Berlusconi topples the government, followed by new elections, all that would be left is a shambles."
But Berlusconi is always good for a surprise. For weeks now, there has been a persistent rumor: Berlusconi's daughter Marina, president of the family's holding company Fininvest, could be waiting in the wings to take over party leadership.