Endgame for Il Cavaliere? Berlusconi Awaits the Final Verdict

By in Rome

Photo Gallery: Endgame for Berlusconi? Photos
AP

For the first time, Silvio Berlusconi is threatened with a legally binding conviction. Italy's highest court is due to rule this week on the former premier's tax fraud verdict. It could finally mean an end to the magnate's political career -- and spell serious trouble for the fragile governing coalition.

Silvio Berlusconi is already rehearsing the role of martyr. "If they convict me, I won't go into exile," he told Il Libero, a conservative newspaper that is sympathetic to the former prime minister. He said he was innocent, but that he would not apply for house arrest: "If I am convicted, I'm going to prison," said the four-time premier, media mogul and multi-billionaire.

Berlusconi later half-heartedly denied the quotes, saying they had been loosely interpreted by the journalists. It is a well-known game of "Il Cavaliere": make a comment only to contest it a bit later. But things are different this time. Berlusconi avoided attacking the judiciary, because now he has to contend with the highest court in the country.

Though he's been indicted on dozens of charges, this is the first time Berlusconi has been threatened with a legally binding conviction. The Court of Cassation in Rome will decide whether to uphold the former premier's conviction and sentence for tax fraud relating to his broadcasting company Mediaset. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office. The first surprise came on Monday evening. It was suddenly announced that the judges wouldn't release their ruling on Tuesday as planned but would wait until Wednesday -- or even later.

Berlusconi definitely won't be going to jail. Because of his age -- Berlusconi is 76 -- the sentence would be commuted to house arrest. It's the political penalty that will likely hit him harder. The ex-premier, who still holds a seat in the senate, would no longer be able to run in elections. And without public office, it is difficult for Berlusconi to protect himself from prosecution for other alleged crimes, such as in the Ruby sex trial.

The End of an Era?

The judges have the power to put an end to Berlusconi's political career. But there's also the chance that, in typical Berlusconi fashion, it could once more go another way.

In Italy, no one knows how the judges will rule or what trump cards Berlusconi's lawyers may still have up their sleeves. The media are treating the case cautiously, and Prime Minister Enrico Letta's Social Democrats are trying to downplay the ruling -- because a conviction would put their coalition with Berlusconi's party to the test.

  • What is the trial about?

Berlusconi was found guilty of tax evasion in two lower courts: A subsidiary of his Mediaset company bought film distribution rights then sold them at inflated prices to Mediaset, dodging taxes. Berlusconi has consistently maintained that he was not aware of what was going on within his media empire.

  • What ruling is expected?

Many media observers believe that the most likely outcome is that the judges uphold the verdict. But they could also acquit him or refer the case back to the last court that dealt with it. Berlusconi's lawyers have raised 50 objections. The word in Rome is that lawyers and judges might agree to postpone a ruling until after the summer break. This would be risky, because as a head of government, Berlusconi delayed the trial by years and the statute of limitations will run out, at some point.

  • What will the ruling mean for the government?

After Italy's election stalemate in February, a grand coalition is striving to reach consensus. It could be badly shaken by the ruling. Were the court to uphold the verdict, the Senate upper house of parliament will have to decide whether Berlusconi immediately loses his Senate seat. Berlusconi's party and the Social Democrats -- the latter united primarily by their loathing of "Il Cavaliere" -- are unlikely to reach an agreement on this. Even the Court of Cassation's announcement a few weeks ago that a ruling could be expected in late July left Rome deeply unsettled. Berlusconi loyalists have already repeatedly threatened to scupper the coalition if their idol is convicted this week.

According to the Libero report, Berlusconi himself said that he expected a conviction would bring down the government. He blamed the leftists, who would, he predicted, refuse to govern with a convicted criminal.

The chief justice will have to ignore such attempts to influence the outcome. But in crisis-ridden Italy, there appears to be no alternative to the current grand coalition. The court might, therefore, take political factors as well as legal ones into account. Once again, Silvio Berlusconi has the country on the edge of its seat.

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