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Column: Italy confronts its fate after Berlusconi sentence upheld

Two men hold up posters depicting former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during a protest in front of Italy's supreme court buildin
Two men hold up posters depicting former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during a protest in front of Italy's supreme court buildin

(John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By John Lloyd

FLORENCE (Reuters) - In Silvio Berlusconi's 20th year on the scene of Italian politics, he has finally been found guilty by the country's highest court of tax fraud.

Berlusconi winked and nodded at tax evasion throughout his career. He protested that no one should pay more than one-third of their income in tax, even while the government he headed demanded up to 50 percent. He paid fortunes to dozens of the most expensive lawyers to delay, obfuscate and time-out charge after charge. That is the man who has been judged guilty of a vast fraud. In a country where tax crime runs from the bottom to the top of society, a judgment of this kind is even larger than the shock waves it will send through the country's political system.

Judge Edoardo d'Avossa, in the first hearing of the fraud case in Milan last October, referred to "an incredible machine of fraud" set in place under the aegis of one who "had a natural capacity for crime." The venerable judges of Italy's Supreme Court took their time weighing in. Outside the vast palace that houses the court, a few enthusiasts for and against the former prime minister shouted at each other, and the broadcast reporters, half-demented by the need to fill the airwaves hour after hour, gave variations of "I have no clue what's happening." A little further off, a cinema showed posters advertising the French film L'Immortale, a story about the Marseilles mafia. The irony was picked up and bounced around the airwaves: would Berlusconi continue his apparent immortality?

No. But what does this mean for the coalition government, half of which is sustained by Berlusconi's recent creation, the People of Freedom party?

Despite an unpromising beginning, yoking together two parties that contained many who loathe each other and led by a modest man who was number two in the hierarchy of the center-left Democratic Party, it has given signs of real determination.

It has a grasp of what must be done and a certain urgency, in the first three months of its life, in doing it. Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the man overseeing the coalition, may have a modest demeanor, but he has the advantage of surprise in a political culture that tends to privilege the flaunting of power. So far, he has shown more than a little steel beneath the mildness. He has said he wants to make large privatizations, to reduce the power of the Senate, which is presently co-equal with the lower house, leading to frequent blockages, and to change an election law that privileges tiny parties, incentivizing splits in larger ones.

We will know soon enough how the government will withstand the shock of the confirmation of the sentence. It will not, in itself, immediately inconvenience Berlusconi. The initial sentence of four years in jail had already been reduced to one on technical grounds, and, though he had protested he was ready to live in a cell, Berlusconi is unlikely to hear the door clang behind him.

Criminals over 70 rarely go to jail in Italy unless they are considered to still be dangerous. More importantly, the sentence that Berlusconi not partake in public life for five years will also be revised, and probably reduced. It's likely, though, that the fact of his being found guilty would, in any case, mean that his Senate seat would be taken from him.

But many in his party had vowed to bring the government down should he be found guilty. The junior minister Michaela Biancofiore said all the People of Freedom deputies had pledged to leave parliament if Berlusconi went down. Immediately after the judgment, she told the news media that her office was at Berlusconi's disposal. Others in her party were giving inflamed interviews.

On the other side, of those in the Democratic Party who hate the Berlusconi side most may now refuse to serve with a party still presided over, and funded, by a guilty Berlusconi. Wise, or cynical, people on both sides say that neither have anything to gain from breaking with the coalition. No one could be sure of improving their position in new elections. Berlusconi himself has said that the government should be both supported and threatened and that, if he is condemned and cast out from mainstream politics, he will recreate an earlier manifestation of his party and get out on the streets and piazzas to rouse his people, as the comedian Beppe Grillo did, with success, in creating the Five Stars Movement.

The wildest card here is Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence and claimant for the leadership of the Democratic Party, who has clothed himself in the mantle of a new Tony Blair. Like his model, he comes in to the center from the left with a mixture of liberalism, patriotism, youth and contempt for the old men who must now make way, not just for him, but for Italians between their twenties and forties who see paths blocked in every sphere of public and corporate life. He would not be at all averse to the collapse of the Letta government — since that would allow him to make a bid for national leadership, assuming he could get his party's support.

He may succeed. Berlusconi has blasted all successors but his daughter into oblivion. On the left, there are many figures but none so patently fired up as Renzi, who has the courage of his ambitions. A struggle between Renzi and Berlusconi's heir, young by any political standards and mere children by Italian ones, would open a new chapter in political life — though the blatancy of such a dynastic success on the right may stick in the craws of all but the most devoted Berlusconians.

Considerations like these are now circling the political field, and will surface more widely in the coming weeks. Italy's politics may be byzantine and at times corrupt, but Italy's politicians are also resourceful, and there are strong signs of a much greater degree of responsibility amongst them. Both this government, and the past technocratic cabinet led by Mario Monti, put their noses to the grindstones of reform.

What cannot be avoided is the finality of the court's decision: Silvio Berlusconi, three times Prime Minister of Italy, is guilty of defrauding the state he commanded. No matter what comes next, things in Italy have already changed.

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). )

(John Lloyd)

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