Berlusconi remains a force in Italy turmoil

AP News
Posted: Feb 14, 2014 6:08 PM

MILAN (AP) — He has been convicted of tax fraud, booted out of the Senate and banned from political office.

In other countries, that would be three strikes. But in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has not lost his political legitimacy, and it will be on full display when the former premier leads his Forza Italia party to meet with Italy's president to discuss prospects for a new government after Premier Enrico Letta's resignation Friday.

Berlusconi's reemergence on Italy's political scene comes just days after a court in Naples put him on trial yet again, this time for allegedly paying a senator 3 million euros ($4 million) to switch parties to bring down a rival government.

"Silvio Berlusconi is a survivor. He has survived many crises, political and legal. He is not going to give up," said Wolfango Piccoli, an Italian political analyst based in London. "Italians are used to seeing Berlusconi as a political leader, regardless of whether he is a felon or regardless of whether he lost his seat in the Parliament."

Berlusconi is just one of the political leaders that President Giorgio Napolitano was meeting Friday and Saturday to see if Matteo Renzi, the leader of the Democratic Party who engineered Letta's demise, has enough support in Parliament to head a new government.

If Napolitano is satisfied that Renzi does, he could tap him as early as this weekend to form a new government, which would then have to pass votes of confidence in Parliament.

The anomaly of Berlusconi, a convicted felon, negotiating a new government program with Italy's head of state is just one of several oddities that are characterizing the irregular political transition now underway in Italy. They include a government leadership change forced not by Parliament but by an internal power struggle within the Democratic Party, and the fact that Renzi, the presumed new premier, has never been elected to Parliament.

For Italians, it also is significant that Renzi would be the third straight premier who did not run as a candidate for the office.

"Italy is an awkward place," said political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte of Rome's LUISS University. "Are you surprised?"

Awkward doesn't begin to describe the upcoming meeting between Berlusconi and Italy's president.

It is institutionally awkward, given Berlusconi's conviction on a charge of defrauding the state of tax revenue. It also is personally awkward in the wake of news reports this week that Napolitano had begun informal consultations with Mario Monti to become premier months before Berlusconi was forced from office in 2011.

There has never been much sympathy between Berlusconi, the 77-year-old three-time premier and media mogul, and Napolitano, the 88-year-old president.

Napolitano is a former member of the now-defunct Italian communist party that has been the target of Berlusconi's political diatribes long since its demise. Just last summer, Berlusconi strongly hinted that his tax fraud conviction should be pardoned, but the president firmly rebuffed him.

"If it wasn't such a tragic moment, it would be amusing," constitutional law expert Lorenza Carlassare told La Repubblica regarding Berlusconi's continued role in Italian political life. "Certainly, in this way, it is embarrassing for the president's office."

But Carlassare said she didn't see a way for Napolitano to refuse a meeting with Berlusconi, given that he still commands a large segment of the electorate.

"It is such an unusual situation that I wouldn't know how to respond. The growing embarrassment also is in relation to a person who is running the third-most popular Italian party, and in terms of coalitions, the one that polls put first," Carlassare said.

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Renzi contributed directly to re-legitimizing Berlusconi's role in the next phase of Italian politics when he met with him earlier this year to hash out an agreement on a new election law proposal. It remains to be seen whether either of them will still stick to the deal.

However, replacing the flawed election law is one of the mandates of any new Renzi government, especially if he hopes to govern until the end of Parliament's term in 2018.

The political ban prevents Berlusconi from running for office, not from heading a political party. And he's not the only convicted felon influencing Italian politics. Comic Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement party, was convicted of manslaughter for a car crash more than 30 years ago that killed three people.

The question that hounds Berlusconi — and that he always manages to scrape out of — is when will he run out of room to maneuver?

Besides the political corruption trial, Berlusconi is under investigation for witness tampering in trials relating to sex-fueled parties at his villa near Milan. He also is awaiting the final appeal, likely later this year, on his conviction for having paid for sex with a minor and using his influence to cover it up. His seven-year sentence and lifetime political ban were upheld on the first appeal.

Theoretically, Berlusconi is expected to be placed under house arrest and to be doing community service for the tax fraud conviction from sometime in April.

"But who knows if he can find some way to get out of that," D'Alimonte said.