Three threats to Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi, not for the first time, is in a bit of bother. What will the political Houdini do? One thing is certain: no one ever got rich betting against him

How will Houdini get out of this one?
Tim Hedges
On 21 June 2013 12:26

When British politician Patrick Mercer was exposed in a sting operation by a British newspaper – for asking questions about Fiji without declaring that the Fijians were paying him to do so – he resigned.

In Northern Europe – Britain, Germany, Holland and so on – there are remarkably few examples of corruption and the people involved generally fall on their swords pretty quickly. Even in France, extending into both areas which we must increasingly view as southern, the budget minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned when it emerged he had a Swiss bank account (mind you he had been preachy about the evils of tax evasion).

Whilst in the north there is some sort of moral imperative to ‘do the right thing’, as Mr. Cameron puts it, in the south evasion is looked on as normal, even admirable. In Italy they use the word ‘scivolare’ meaning to glide round the regulations like a skier, and ‘furbo’, cunning, for someone who manages it.

No one made much of a fuss when the former racing manager and Benetton executive Flavio Briatore had his yacht seized for non payment of tax: he was involved with racing cars and is married to the ’Wonderbra’ model Elisabetta Gregoraci; what’s not to like? There is a general acceptance here that the self-employed and the rich don’t pay taxes; the people who do are the employed, caught in the pay as you earn system, who can’t avoid it.

There has, however, been a few successes scored by the Italian financial police, the GdF, on the well-to-do and the famous. In 1982 Sofia Loren famously went to jail, and this week we have learned of the sentencing of fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana to 20 months in prison (suspended) for tax evasion in the 2004-6 period (the mills of Italian justice, like those of God, grind slowly if not particularly small).

Now everyone is wondering whether they have trapped the Big One, Silvio Berlusconi. Among his many scrapes with the law over the last 20 years is the Mediaset affair, where his TV and entertainment company was accused of overpaying for film rights and stashing money away in foreign bank accounts. Berlusconi was convicted last October and sentenced to four years in jail, with exclusion from the holding of public office for five years. Last month his first appeal failed and the conviction was upheld.

But nobody seriously feared for Berlusconi. His lawyers’ favourite tactic is delay and they had lodged an appeal over ‘legitimate impediment’. This was to the effect that at a hearing in 2010 Berlusconi, who was Prime Minister at the time, said he could not attend due to a cabinet meeting but the excuse had not been allowed. This appeal, to the Constitutional Court, would, if successful, have stretched the case so far into the future that it would have been cancelled due to the Statute of Limitations.

But the Court has rejected the appeal (it wasn’t a scheduled cabinet meeting) and now Berlusconi will either have to accept his conviction (unthinkable) or make his second and final appeal. This could be heard in October/ November, which would mean the ban on public office (he won’t go to prison) could begin before the end of the year. This would change the political map of Italy.

At the same time, Silvio has other headaches. On Monday the court is due to give its verdict on the Ruby case, where Berlusconi has been accused of sleeping with an underage prostitute. There is a lot of confusion about this in the foreign press: the legal age of consent is 16, like in Britain, although it can be 14 if both parties are under 16. It is, however, illegal to use the services of a prostitute who is under 18 (which, it is claimed, Ruby was).

In addition, Berlusconi is charged with misuse of public office, to the effect that he asked the police to release her (she was being held for a minor offence) on the grounds that she was the granddaughter of President Mubarak.

Lastly there is the 5-star Movement case. Beppe Grillo’s movement (he doesn’t like it being called a party) has tabled a parliamentary motion for Berlusconi to be ineligible to hold office under a 1957 law saying that holders of licences from the State cannot be lawmakers. In Berlusconi’s case the licences are the broadcasting licences his media empire holds.

This has been tried before without success, but in recent years the centre-left PD party has been making noises to the effect that this shouldn’t be allowed. It would be embarrassing for Letta, and perhaps impossible, to vote with the centre-right to strike this out. In any case you can see what makes Grillo hot under the collar: it would involve the ruling party voting for the preservation of its opponents, a stitch up if ever there was one.

A date has provisionally been set for the debate of July 9th, but that will have to be confirmed by Parliament on Tuesday.

In the meantime the hawks of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party (the principal contingent of the PdL coalition) have said that they will bring down the coalition by resigning en masse if their hero is made ineligible (presumably either through the Mediaset case or through Beppe Grillo’s motion).

The doves in the party note how badly it did in the last elections. The pragmatists note that around the time of the Supreme Court ruling the centre-left PD will hold hustings at which they are likely to elect 38-year-old Matteo Renzi, a formidable campaigner, as their leader, so they might lose further ground if they don’t act quickly.

What will the political Houdini do? Perhaps find another delay in the Mediaset case, appeal Ruby if necessary, and smooth talk Letta over the Grillo motion. People have been talking for years about a post-Berlusconi era: I can only say no one ever got rich betting against him. 

Tim Hedges had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer

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