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Return to chaos?

Emma Wallis
August 5, 2013

Could Silvio Berlusconi's sentence at Italy's highest court on Thursday bring the Italian government to its knees? His supporters talk of "civil war" if Berlusconi is not allowed to continue practicing politics.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waves to supporters as his girlfriend Francesca Pascale looks on during a rally to protest his tax fraud conviction, outside his palace in central Rome August 4, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi )
Image: Reuters

You have to admit, Silvio Berlusconi is a publicity maestro, proving the old adage that even bad news is good publicity. A conviction for tax evasion - the first time the media mogul and former prime minister has been definitively convicted of a crime - brought him center stage once again. Most summers, his publishing and broadcast empire contributes to the seasonal diet of celebrities in bikinis and gossip about who's sleeping with whom. But this August, the former Italian prime minister has not only managed to hog the headlines, but potentially caused another crack in the country's fragile governing coalition.

'I am innocent'

The sentence for tax fraud, like many things in Italy, was not as hard hitting as it first appeared: four years in prison, reduced to one, and then commuted to some kind of "house arrest" or community service because of Berlusconi's age. And house arrest would not kick in until October at the earliest, giving the former prime minister some time to criss-cross the country addressing "the faithful" - his supporters.

Silvio Berlusconi talks to his supporters during a demonstration organized by PDL party for its leader, in front of his residence in Rome, Italy, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013. Italy's former premier, Silvio Berlusconi, for the first time in decades of criminal prosecutions related to his media empire was definitively convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to prison by the nation's highest court. Judge Antonio Esposito, in reading the court's decision Thursday, declared Berlusconi's conviction and four-year prison term "irrevocable." He also ordered another court to review the length of a ban on public office — the most incendiary element of the conviction because it threatens to interrupt, if not end, Berlusconi's political career. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
'I am innocent and I won't give up' Berlusconi tells his supportersImage: picture alliance / AP Photo

Dressed all in black with a collarless T-shirt, Berlusconi stood on a podium on Sunday (04.08.2013) and proclaimed: "I am I-N-N-O-C-E-N-T." He went on, perhaps unconsciously, mimicking the Latin Mass and at the same time appealing to the Italians' sense of family. "As a son, as a father…" ("Padre, figlio e…"), he intoned, substituting after a well chosen pause the word "businessman" for "holy spirit."

To cheers from the crowd, he went on. "As a citizen, and a servant of the state I have, in the last few days, been through the most stressful and upsetting days of my whole life." The media, he said, was distorting his image and not portraying the real Silvio Berlusconi. He said he would tell each and every person, even his "so-called" judges, that he was innocent.

'A historic moment'

Whether pro or contra Berlusconi, many have seen the judgment as a historic turning point. The man who has essentially dominated Italian politics since 1994 may be asked to retire from all political office in October. People who applaud the judge's decision - and his success at making a guilty verdict stick - hope that this might enable other political powers to come to the fore.

But, for Berlusconi's supporters, like Sandro Bondi, the former culture minister, the judgment was historic for very different reasons. In a letter published in the Berlusconi owned "Il Giornale" newspaper, Bondi raged that "the country …was prey to ferocious barbarism that could explode at any moment." This kind of anger, Bondi implied, could spark a sort of civil war, if Berlusconi was not allowed to stay in politics.

'Civil war' farce

Bondi's talk of civil war sparked a Twitter storm in the country. Many opponents of Berlusconi's People of Liberty party (PDL) took to tweeting under the hashtag #guerracivile (civil war) to joke about how PDL supporters might prepare for such an eventuality - by "tanning themselves in an effort to mimic their 'great' leader" joked one. "By diverting bus loads of pensioners on seaside trips to protest the cause," said another.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta (L) shakes hands with President Giorgio Napolitano during his swearing in ceremony in Rome on April 28, 2013. (Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Will the Italian government be heading for more crisis as Berlusconi protests his innocence?Image: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

Lorenza Bonaccorsi of the Democratic Party (PD), whose leader, Enrico Letta, is prime minister, called Bondi's words "unacceptable provocations." And the member of parliament and journalist, Pino Pisicchio, sounded a warning note. Recalling what happened to Germany's Weimar government, which held frequent elections before finally folding to Adolf Hitler, he called upon people to "avoid playing with fire" and risking Italy's democracy.

An amnesty or pardon?

After the sentence, there was talk that President Giorgio Napolitano would be petitioned to grant an amnesty to Berlusconi, allowing him to continue his political career. There were fears that the PDL might withdraw from the cabinet, plunging Italy once more into political crisis. But Berlusconi himself said on Sunday, that he and the PDL were not "irresponsible": they had always been clear in underlining that the "government must continue" and they would support it.

The left-leaning daily, La Repubblica, reported that an actual request for a pardon was not put forward in a long telephone conversation with Napolitano. Instead, Berlusconi merely reassured the long-suffering head of state that he wasn't about to risk the government. He perhaps reasoned too that (with other convictions still pending, like that in the infamous "Bunga Bunga" sex and corruption case) the party would not win the two-thirds parliamentary vote needed for an amnesty to be granted. Instead, on Monday, the PDL called once more for "reform" of the legal system in order to maintain the viability of their chosen leader.

'A game of bondage'

Teenage nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug of Morocco poses during a photocall at the Karma disco in Milan (Photo:REUTERS/Stringer/Files)
With other convictions pending, as in the 'Ruby' case, it's unlikely that Berlusconi will obtain an amnestyImage: Reuters

It is unlikely that any significant decisions will be taken until after the summer. Roberto Fico, an MP with Beppe Grillo's movement M5S (Movimento 5 Stelle), summed up the sense of farce and fracture surrounding this affair. He commented with a smile that the PD and the PDL were engaged in an "erotic game of bondage" where they push each other to the limits of strangulation. In his opinion this will continue until "both parties die."

After a short stay in the Sardinian sun, Berlusconi can be counted upon to carry on stirring up the crowds long before the imposition of house arrest comes to cramp his style. A political crisis may have been avoided for now, but the autumn is already casting its shadow, and the possibility of further political fracture is just a few months away.