Is Citizen Berlusconi now equal before the law?

Senate moves to expel former prime minister

The ongoing process in the Italian Senate to expel Silvio Berlusconi from the Senate and to deny him the right to stand in subsequent elections in the face of threats (now abandoned) by Berlusconi and his supports to bring down the coalition government, is a historic milestone. It does not mean the end of Berlusconi as a major influence on Italian politics. Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Internet-based Five Star Movement who has insisted that its members of parliament vote against any government including the any of the other main parties despite being excluded from sitting himself because of a manslaughter conviction resulting from a road accident 30 years ago. Similarly, Berlusconi will certainly try to dictate what members of his party do from outside parliament. Despite his 76 years and probably not ideally healthy life style, he remains like a cat with nine lives. Moreover, his daughter, Marina, who has successfully taken over his main media and business interests, might well—despite denials—move into politics when he finally does step down.

However, the move does mark a move to tackle the deep flaws in Italy’s democracy. It has not been a country in which all are equal before the law. Berlusconi had been able to use political connections to establish a near monopoly in the emerging private television sector in the 1980s but at the time of the “Clean Hands” judicial investigations which brought down the two leading government parties the Christian Democrats and Socialists and in particular Berlusconi’s close friend Bettino Craxi, he risked losing these privileges and was threatened by prosecutions launched against him for business practices which gave a low priority to compliance with the law. Although Berlusconi has clearly liked excercising what proved to be a flair for politics in the television age, there can be little doubt, in view of the proportion of legislation enacted by governments he led which was designed to reduce the risks of being sentenced for the crimes for which he was being prosecuted, that a powerful contributory motivation to his political career has been to ensure that he and his businesses remained free from the need to comply with laws like transparent accounting and payment of taxes.

His main opponent was a party which, despite being actually very moderate, had only dropped the word Communist from its name a few years earlier. It could do little to exploit his problems with the law. His claims that the prosecutors were part of a leftwing conspiracy which were already given some credence by the fact that the judiciary was excessively politicised, would have been given more credence had former communists given more prominence to his judicial problems. Moreover, at the time to have denied office to a leader who had built an alliance able to win a majority in parliament, would have been even more anti-democratic than breaching the principle of equality before the law.

The situation now is very different. Berlusconi has been the leading personality in Italian politics for almost 20 years and been prime minister for about half the time. He has clearly had his chance to govern Italy, which ended in his resignation in late 2011 because Italy was bankrupt and national and international investors would not lend at affordable rates as long as he remained prime minister. Insofar as he subsequently regained some support it has been by promising to reverse the measures that had regained confidence.

Future of Italian democracy remains unclear

Berlusconi is finally being treated more like an ordinary citizen who has transgressed. Although commutation of the four years prison sentence given in July to one year’s house arrest or community service is a lenient one, it is still humbling as will be the expected ban on standing for election.

There is little of the hope that existed 20 years ago for a new era and better era in Italian politics.  But changes are possible. The electoral system manages both to favour excessively one political grouping that achieves a plurality by giving it a majority in the Chamber of Deputies while not allowing it to govern effectively because of a different system for the Senate. A reform is needed but no agreement can yet be found on how to replace it.

There are three main political groupings: that around Berlusconi’s recently relaunched Forza Italia, including the xenophobic regionalist party Lega Nord; the Five Star Movement which led from outside Parliament by Beppe Grillo has so far determinedly resisted any form of political negotiation with other parties and remains a purely protest movement; and the left of centre Partito Democratico (PD) which is deeply divided between traditionalists–like the leader until his resignation in April, Pier Luigi Bersani—and the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who wants a modernized more youthful party. All of these groupings could look very different, assuming they still exist, in a few years time.

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