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Berlusconi: a dead weight

The ex-prime minister’s criminal convictions are a bind on the Italian government

Silvio Berlusconi’s multiple scrapes with the law now threaten not only his own political career, but also the stability of the coalition government headed by Enrico Letta. This week’s ruling issued by a Milan court against the former Italian prime minister is particularly grave, in terms both of the sentence involved (seven years in prison, and permanent disqualification from public office) and of the nature of the charges: abuse of power and inducement of a minor to prostitution. The ruling confirms the criminal nature of what has indulgently been portrayed as the whimsies of an extravagant man.

The court considers it proven that Berlusconi hired Karima el Mahroug, alias Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby the Heart Stealer), for his sex parties when the girl was still under 18. He also intervened to have the police release her (abuse of power) when she was later arrested for theft. It remains to be seen what will come of the ruling, which necessarily implies the prosecution, for perjury, of some 30 witnesses who denied the facts of the case, including El Mahroug herself. The appeal against the sentence is already underway, but turbulence and uncertainty again cast a shadow over Italian institutions.

Berlusconi is proclaiming that this conviction is a political one, and that it will receive a political answer. The leader of the Italian center-right is an unpredictable man, but it seems unlikely that his People of Freedom party, the second-ranking in the Italian parliament, will withdraw from the coalition brokered at the last moment by the president, Giorgio Napolitano. This would be a rather risky move. Letta might attempt to form new pacts to hold things together, and, in any case, possible elections might well strengthen the prime minister’s Democratic Party (PD). But above all it would produce a scenario of uncertainty, highly undesirable at this time when Italy is reeling under the repeated blows of recession.

Berlusconi is proclaiming that this conviction is a political one

The PD itself declares that the conviction “cannot and must not” affect the continuity of the government. The notion that the judicial sphere can be considered separately from the political one is a somewhat hardy exercise in willfulness, or wishful thinking, imposed by the difficult circumstances of the country. But it cannot be doubted that this conviction is generating a good deal of malaise among the center-left, and that it increases the fragility of the coalition.

Until now Berlusconi had always managed to wriggle out unscathed from his many entanglements with the law. But last month, a court of appeal ratified a sentence of four years’ imprisonment for tax fraud, which is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. The indestructible “Cavaliere” has now become, more than ever, a toxic figure.

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