Analysis: Can Italy's Berlusconi pull off one last escape?

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 02, 2013 11:28 AM
Analysis: Can Italy's Berlusconi pull off one last escape?

By Barry Moody

ROME (Reuters) - Can Silvio Berlusconi pull off one last escape or is Italy's most controversial man finally finished after being convicted of tax fraud?

Perhaps the biggest shock for Berlusconi's intensely loyal supporters when the supreme court on Thursday rejected his appeal against a four-year jail sentence - commuted to one year - was that he had failed to evade his pursuers as usual.

The billionaire media mogul has seen off dozens of legal prosecutions and weathered a sea of scandals since he stormed into politics in 1994 to fill a void on the right after a huge corruption investigation wiped out the old political order.

But on Thursday the courts finally caught up with one of Italy richest men and its most successful politician, handing down a verdict which shook the uneasy coalition in which his center-right rules with the center-left.

Berlusconi, 76, looked shaken and pallid when he issued a video message on Thursday night, far from the wisecracking and cheerful rogue figure so popular with his supporters in television appearances and public meetings in the past.

He said he had "reached almost the end of my working life".

The verdict condemns him to either a year of community service or house arrest, bans him from voting or standing in an election and is likely to lead to his peers throwing him out of the Senate - ironically under the terms of a 2012 law passed by his disparaged successor as prime minister, Mario Monti.

But although he is doubtlessly severely wounded and these are formidable obstacles, he seems not yet mortally hurt.

"Berlusconi is not finished," read a banner headline in il Giornale, the newspaper run by his brother.

"Berlusconi will only leave politics if he is dead. He is too determined to fight injustice," one avid supporter, Giuseppe Luca, a 59-year-old Rome antiques dealer, told Reuters.

MARTYR

In his video message Berlusconi painted himself as a martyr, persecuted by the leftist magistrates he has repeatedly accused of hounding him to subvert the democratic will of Italians.

He said he was the victim of "a judicial persecution that has no equal in the civilized world".

Such accusations strike a chord with center right voters in a country where many have been victims of a byzantine legal system where magistrates are routinely politicized.

Asked if Berlusconi was politically dead, one former close ally who asked not to be named replied: "No way! Wait for the opinion polls. You will see how Italians see this affair. They always tend to sympathize with a martyr ... Berlusconi will rise again."

"House arrest for one year is not a very long time. He will obviously continue with his contacts. At the end of the year he will still be in the struggle, so it is a period of suspension," Bologna University professor Gianfranco Pasquino told Reuters.

Berlusconi vowed to push on with "a battle of freedom", continuing a project to refound his original party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), infused with new energy from younger people.

This has fuelled speculation that he will ask his oldest daughter Marina, 46 and head of his Fininvest holding company, to lead his existing People of Freedom (PDL) party.

"He may want to exploit the value-added factor of the Berlusconi name," Pasquino said.

HOUSE ARREST

Nevertheless the extent of the setback for Berlusconi cannot be underestimated. The PDL depends entirely on his wealth and above all his formidable charisma and powers of communication, which will be mostly suppressed under house arrest.

During 2012, after Berlusconi went into a depressed retreat following his unceremonious bundling from power as Italy faced a Greek-style debt crisis, the PDL's ratings dropped to around 15 percent, less than half what they won in a 2008 election landslide.

After he stormed back in late 2012, toppling Monti and hitting the hustings, they put on around 10 points and narrowly failed to beat the center-left favorites in an election last February, although they got six million votes less than in 2008.

Berlusconi's absence from the front line will not stop the party exploiting his image, his 20 years of dominance and his unchallenged leadership of the center-right - the natural constituency for a majority of Italians.

"He will broadcast a victim's message with all the means at his disposal. As always, he will exploit even unfavorable conditions. He will relaunch his political role," Professor Antonio Gibelli, an expert on the former nightclub crooner, told the Corriere della Sera daily.

Perhaps most importantly, Berlusconi will endure because there is no alternative on the center-right and he has perhaps rashly never groomed a successor. The few politicians on the right and center who have challenged him, including Monti, have spectacularly failed.

"The center right needs him. They cannot manage without him," said Professor James Walston of Rome's American University.

However, Walston believes absence from the public eye may in fact accelerate a psychological decline in Berlusconi, a man for whom performing in public and campaigning is his life's blood.

"He thrives on it. He needs it like some people need heroin or alcohol. Without it, he might go into some kind of decline."

Whatever happens, Italy has certainly not seen the end of the great showman yet, in fact Gibelli believes he has become an irremovable part of the fabric of Italy.

"A man condemned for fraud should leave politics. But Berlusconi is an inescapable protagonist of public life."

(Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni, Roberto Landucci and Naomi O'Leary; Writing By Barry Moody; Editing by Giles Elgood)