Many countries have had civil wars – mostly long and bloody affairs fought over deeply held principles. After Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud and tax evasion, one of his advisors, Sandro Bondi expressed the possibility for Italy. This civil war, thankfully, will not be bloody but it will be drawn out and it is being fought over a deeply held principle, respect for the law against loyalty to the chief.
Three episodes last Sunday perfectly illustrate Italy’s “civil war”.
Silvio Berlusconi addressed a few thousand supporters gathered outside Palazzo Grazioli, his Rome residence. He proclaimed his innocence after his conviction on Thursday explaining that the judiciary were mere unelected functionaries and that they were undemocratic when they deprived him of his liberty and political rights. He was not prepared to accept their judgement, even that of the Supreme Court after two appeals. This was a repeat of the extraordinary performance a few hours after his conviction when he distributed a speech (shown by most media) where he appeared with the European flag and the Italian tricolour behind him dressed up as a head of state or government. His message, though, was profoundly subversive as he attacked the judiciary, one of the institututions of the state.
In a peripheral story on the demonstration, it seems that Berlusconi had not even asked the Rome council for authorisation to put up the stand from which he spoke.
Finally, the Guardia di Finanza, the tax police checked hundreds of businesses in tourist resorts from the upmarket Costa Smeralda and Capri to the much more downmarket Riccione on the Adriatic. The super-rich Flavio Briatore complained that this would discourage super yachts from going to Sardinia while at the other end, mayors made the same complaint that an economic recession was not the moment to be too severe…
The Supreme Court, taxes and municipal permits, so the message goes, are constraints on citizens’ freedom and therefore “undemocratic”.
But something is changing.
For the first time, Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted at the third and final level of judgement. Italy’s Supreme Court, the Court of Cassation confirmed the verdict of the two lower courts; they confirmed the four year prison sentence and sent the five year bar on holding public office back to the Court of Appeal to correct a technical flaw. The new bar will be between one and three years (the prosecutor at the Supreme Court asked for three years last week).
President Giorgio Napolitano said within an hour of the verdict that “now” the justice system can be reformed – a possible implication being that the judiciary had won this battle, Berlusconi had lost and now we can move on and change a system which is in desperate need of reform, especially the civil law which apart from being unjust in its delays (“justice delayed is justice denied”), is one of the biggest single elements discouraging development. Others have been less generous in their interpretation and suggest that now that Berlusconi has taken a drubbing, there should be some restrictions on the judiciary, particularly the criminal law, a sort of return match.
The Democratic Party (PD) secretary, Guglielmo Epifani said also within an hour of the verdict that sentence must be implemented; curious as a party leader has nothing to do with the implementation of a sentence but he was talking to his own base. Since then he has repeated that statement as have most other PD leaders; their not-very-hidden message is to their own members to keep calm and not rebel against the leadership for being in a coalition with a convicted tax evader.
Berlusconi and his followers have complained that after creating so many jobs and paying so much in taxes, he was convicted for a mere €7m. This is a grand echo, in technicolour of the former minister and Olympian Josefa Idem who justified her alleged cheating on planning permission and local taxes by saying that she had won lots of medals for Italy. She has just regularised her position with a €3,000 payment but her political career is ruined (she resigned as minister after the allegations were made). To paraphrase Behan on terrorists, a small tax evader is a low-grade criminal, a big one is saviour of his country.
These last ten days have seen Berlusconi offensives on all fronts. They aim to either change the verdict (impossible) or reduce its effects and allow Berlusconi to continue a public life. The offensives are against the president of the bench that convicted him (go for the man, not the ball; but not very effective as there is no way to overturn the conviction); against President Napolitano – the leaders of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party from both houses went to see him to implicitly ask for a pardon or they would bring the government down (Napolitano has rejected the pardon as legally impossible but some rumours suggest he might be working on some other solution); against prime minister Letta, again threatening to bring down the government (but they risk an own-goal if the government falls before it has dealt with some tax reductions at the top of the PdL agenda; the (re-)launch of the old party Forza Italia with a new but recognisable leader, Silvio’s eldest daughter, Marina Berlusconi (she has been less than enthusiastic and many PdL leaders don’t like the idea of a dynastic party either).
So Silvio Berlusconi is down but far from out yet. But barring some sort of electoral coup (snap elections where Berlusconi wins a relative majority and is crow-barred into office – not very likely even if some of his supporters dream of it), he will not hold elected office either in this or the next Parliament. His influence will remain and indeed some of Italy’s most successful criminals, like the leader of the New Organised Camorra, Raffaele Cutolo, have continued their businesses from inside gaol – Berlusconi will not actually be in gaol so it will be even easier. But it is a declining influence – and the civil war between Italians who do not accept laws and regulations and those who do will outlast Berlusconi.