ROME (AP) — A Silvio Berlusconi loyalist warned on Saturday of a possible "civil war" if the ex-premier's punishment for tax-fraud conviction is not lifted, as his aides maneuvered to win a presidential pardon so he can avoid a prison term and a ban on holding public office.
Berlusconi stalwarts also urged the 10 million Italians who voted for the conservative leader in this year's election to fill the streets of Rome on Sunday.
Italy's highest court on Thursday upheld Berlusconi's four-year prison sentence, the first time that the media mogul was definitely convicted and sentenced in two decades of trials and other criminal probes. A law to reduce prison overcrowding slashes his sentence to one year and since he is over 70, he can choose house confinement or perform social services instead of going to prison.
Berlusconi insists he is a victim of prosecutors and judges who he says have leftist sympathies.
"In this country, democracy has been mutilated" by the high court's decision, Daniela Santanche, one of Berlusconi's closest associates, told Sky TG24 TV.
His political associates and party officials pressed their "save Silvio" strategy on several fronts after huddling with him on Friday evening. Berlusconi, in a recorded video message a few hours after Italy's supreme court upheld the conviction, had sounded shaken but defiant, vowing to galvanize his party's base.
Renato Brunetta, a leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said Saturday he and a former Senate president, Renato Schifani, have requested a meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who can issue pardons.
Napolitano hasn't publicly commented about the prospects of a pardon. But, according to the Italian constitution, only Berlusconi, his lawyer or a family member can ask for a presidential pardon, which could wipe out or lessen the punishment but not the conviction itself.
Fueling political tension was longtime Berlusconi loyalist Sandro Bondi's assessment that Italy "must find a solution or risk civil war" if the 76-year-old billionaire businessman is forced to serve time and is stripped of his Senate seat.
Whatever the government's fate, Berlusconi isn't about to start serving his sentence or lose his seat. He has until mid-October to decide whether to serve the year's sentence at home or perform some socially useful service. And Senate procedures to strip him of his post will likely take months.
Exposing raw nerves in Premier Enrico Letta's coalition, Deputy Economy Minister Stefano Fassina denounced the request for a pardon as "an unacceptable provocation" and Bondi's words as "bordering on subversion."
Letta's fragile coalition risks collapse if Berlusconi's party withdraws support.
Berlusconi's political heir, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has said that maybe he and fellow ministers who support the media mogul should quit in a show of anger over the conviction.
Letta's center-left Democratic Party won the most votes in February's election for Parliament but not enough to govern alone with a majority in both chambers of the legislature. Democrats reluctantly agreed to a coalition with Berlusconi's conservatives. The alliance has been fraught with tensions for weeks before Berlusconi's conviction made its long-term survival uncertain.