It’s going to be a hot week in Rome; it was 33 today and we have 38 threatened for Thursday but that is nothing compared to the ordeals that Berlusconi is going to go through and because of them, the government and the parties.
Tomorrow is the most important day. The Constitutional Court will pronounce on the so-called “legitimate impediment”. In 2010, the Court of Appeal was hearing the Mediaset case where Berlusconi had been convicted of tax evasion and fraud. On 1 March there was a hearing and a cabinet meeting called by Berlusconi, then prime minister. He did not appear in court arguing that he had good reason (“a legitimate impediment”). The Court rejected his argument and proceeded to judgement, confirming the lower court’s conviction of 4 years in gaol and a 5 year bar to holding public office.
So Berlusconi appealed to the Constitutional Court which delayed and delayed trying to avoid handing down judgement in a politically sensitive moment. They are, apparently, very divided.
If they accept Berlusconi’s suit, he will be off the hook for the Mediaset case as there is no way that there can be a new appeal before the statute of limitations closes the procedure next year. If they reject it, then Berlusconi and the rest of us will have to wait until autumn when the Court of Cassation (Italy’s Supreme Court) will confirm or reject the Court of Appeal’s sentence.
On Monday, the Milan court will pronounce the verdict on the Ruby case where Berlusconi is accused of having had sex with an under age prostitute and of abuse of office. It’s a great media story and no doubt there will be plenty of coverage but politically it will have no effect if he is convicted. This is the court of first instance and there are two more levels which will take many years so the final conviction, if there is one, is a long way off.
Much more serious next week is the motion tabled by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement arguing that Berlusconi is ineligible to hold elected office. A 1953 law prohibits anyone who has a concession from the state (like a broadcasting licence) from holding elected office. For almost 20 years, the law was ignored but now the grillini want to apply it. It will be embarrassing for Berlusconi but even more so for the Democratic Party which will be forced to choose between consistency (they have accepted Berlusconi for 20 years) and legality and political expediency (they cannot be seen to be outflanked by Grillo).
Back in the courts, the civil courts, there will be the final verdict confirming or rejecting the judgement which awarded half a billion euros damages to Berlusconi’s archrival Carlo De Benedetti because of the fraudulent takeover of the Mondadori publishing house. Even for a man of Berlusconi’s substance, it is a hefty sum, all the more stinging coming in the middle of the criminal and political travails.
Although Berlusconi is no longer in government, he is still very much the power behind it. Prime minister Letta depends on the votes of Berlusconi’s PdL for his survival (though some members of the PD are trying to make a deal with dissident grillini as a sort of insurance policy). Whatever the results of the cases over the next days, even if they all go against Berlusconi, he is not going to pull the plug on the government quite yet. He has been playing the elder statesman blessing the Letta government one day and then playing the cheeky chappie saying that European fiscal constraints can be ignored the next.
He will continue to play that game for the next six months, one day threatening, one day feinting with the government and the court until the Court of Cassation delivers.
If they uphold his conviction in the Mediaset case with its bar on his holding public office, then we will see Silvio Berlusconi slip from the statesman role to the rabblerousing populist with uncertain and dangerous possibilities. He has already begun to deploy his "army", l'Esercito della Libertà. Not brown or blackshirts but blue, well-heeled and well made up, and disturbing.
What happens of the next 10 days will be a foretaste of both final court verdicts and Berlusconi’s reactions. Then the temperature might go down for a time.