Italy: the courts, the fights and Silvio Berlusconi

There really is never a dull moment in Italian politics.

Is he laughing or crying?
Tim Hedges
On 11 July 2013 11:39

It may be that history does not record 10th July 2013 as one of the most remarkable days of the Italian parliament, but only because there may be even more exciting days ahead. The proceedings were, nonetheless, almost a spectator sport.

It started, as so many things do, with Silvio Berlusconi. I wrote a while back that the Mediaset trial was the most important, if not the raciest, of the cases against him, because it was the most pressing.

The prosecution’s case is that in purchasing film rights from America he inserted an intermediary in the transaction, which overcharged the Italian company, thus generating profits in a lower tax zone. It is fairly simple tax evasion but a serious offence , and Berlusconi was convicted. In Italy you get two appeals and the first one, in May, went against him.

The sentence is four years in prison (for anyone over 70 this is likely to be house arrest, or in Silvio’s case, mansion arrest) and, almost worse for him, a ban on holding public office for five years. When this happened I warned in these pages ‘no one ever got rich betting against Silvio Berlusconi’.

And as if in answer, on 9th July the Corriere della Sera published an article outlining how this political Houdini was likely to escape. The Corriere, although like Silvio Milan-based, is politically independent and an authoritative paper; the article perfectly credible.

The wheeze was that one of the Mediaset cases came up against the statute of limitations in August (a previous Berlusconi government had shortened the term for certain cases, including this one).

That case would thus fail, and the sentence, which had covered all the charges, would be arguably excessive. Berlusconi would then conduct a lengthy appeal against the sentence, during the course of which the other charges would be timed out. Everyone thought he’d got off.

Then the final court of appeal, the Court of Cassation, dropped its bombshell. It would hear the case on 30th July, before any part was timed out. Everyone had expected a November hearing, if it indeed would be this year, for that is the speed at which these cases are normally heard.

Berlusconi’s party, the People of Freedom, expressed outrage (there is one person whose freedom they are particularly concerned about). Berlusconi himself has kept fairly quiet, on the advice of his lawyer, but he has maintained steadily that he believes the judicial system to be biased against him.

The Cassation’s haste might give some substance to that; although the President of the Court, Giorgio Santacroce, has said that no exception to normal practice was made in this case.

In parliament, Renato Brunetta, a senior figure in Berlusconì’s party, proposed a three day suspension of proceedings but this was stopped by the majority leaders, the Democratic Party (PD). However, when he proposed a one-day stoppage, astonishingly (well, I was astonished) the PD spokesman said they would agree to the motion out of solidarity with their coalition partners.

This time it was the turn of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) to express outrage. In the Senate Pietro Grasso rose to his feet. Grasso means fat in Italian and he is indeed a full figured gentleman. He spoke well. He said that it was disgraceful that due to the legal problems of one man, a Senator who by the way had never set foot in the Senate, the proceedings of the parliament should be suspended.

He invited members to hand back a day’s pay. Then he said (cue second astonishment) ‘As a protest we shall take off our jackets and ties’. And they did.

There was such shock that he might as well have suggested removing all their clothing. After a pause the Speaker of the Senate said that whilst protest was the right of everybody, he begged the M5S senators to observe the dress regulations. After a pause Grasso announced proudly that having made their point they would leave the chamber and dress themselves again.

In the House of Deputies, meanwhile. M5S members had cut loose. They stood in front of PD members hurling abuse (Jesters, mercenaries, servants!), started a fight, then staged a sit-in outside.

Not to be outdone, the second party of the centre-right, the Northern League, began to denounce the second party of the centre-left, SEL, over their support for gay marriage. SEL stands for Socialism and Liberty but a Northern League Deputy suggested it was Sodomy and Liberty and another fight ensued. As they were dragged apart the SEL spokesman threatened ‘I’ll wait for you outside’.

Back to Berlusconi: could  everybody be right? It is hard not to feel sympathy with his party, in that, normal practice or not, the Court of Cassation have never been seen to move so quickly. It is hard not to feel sympathy with the PD, who say they are just trying to get on with government.

And it is hard not to support Beppe Grillo’s ‘Grillini’ when they say that the country is in crisis and the work of parliament should not be suspended for one man’s problems: as all this was going on Standard & Poor’s was downgrading Italian debt. The bond markets took it in their stride but S&P put Italy on negative watch, saying there would be further downgrades (plural) if it could not form a stable government. A further two notches down and Italian debt would not be investment grade, in which case Italy would need a rescue.

Enrico Letta, the Prime minister, has said that nothing that happens to Berlusconi could affect the government but that seems optimistic: it didn’t look too stable on Wednesday.

And there is a further complication: for Berlusconi to be sentenced the Senate would have to cancel his immunity. If the PdL threatened to bring the government down, would the PD hand him over to the courts and destroy everything? But would the people tolerate him hiding behind immunity?

If the first rule of Italian politics is ‘don’t write off Silvio’, the second is ‘nothing is as simple as it looks’.

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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