Berlusconi: Houdini’s last escape
Surely last weeks volte face signals the end of the road for Silvio Berlusconi. Toby Abse reports
Following his humiliating climbdown on October 2, Silvio Berlusconi has now lost the unquestioning support of his own party, the Popolo della Libertà (PdL). Since the PdL, like its predecessor, Forza Italia, was entirely created around the personality of Berlusconi, this is a much more severe blow than any challenge to the leadership or line of a more conventional western European party of the centre-right would be - it is, for example, far more serious than John Major’s undermining by the group of rightwing Europhobes that he dubbed “the bastards”.
Berlusconi’s 180-degree about-turn occurred towards the end of a confidence debate precipitated by Berlusconi’s own decision on September 25 to obtain undated resignation letters from all PdL parliamentarians. He had ordered all five PdL ministers to resign from Enrico Letta’s ‘grand coalition’ on September 28. But at the very last minute on October 2, faced with a rebellion in the PdL, he suddenly announced that he was, after all, advocating a vote of confidence in a government whose taxation policies he had been denouncing the day before.
He may in this way have avoided an open split in the PdL - at least in the short term, although tensions between ministerial ‘doves’ and more oppositional ‘hawks’ remain - but he is now gravely weakened. He not only bowed to pressure from rebellious members of his own party led by the PdL party secretary, deputy prime minister and interior minister, Angelino Alfano, but was seen to do so on live television, so that his public humiliation is visually recorded in his favourite medium and can never be denied.
Within two days of this farcical end to a very serious bid to bring down the coalition of the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), the centrist Scelta Civica and the PdL itself, so as to precipitate an early general election, Berlusconi had to endure a further humiliation. This took the form of the predictable vote (by a 15 to eight majority1) of a senate committee to recommend his expulsion from the house. Whilst this committee recommendation made on October 4 may not be put to the vote of the full senate for two or three weeks, it marks a further stage in Berlusconi’s decline.
His supporters on the committee had tried to engage in what was in reality a prolonged filibuster.2 Under the Severino anti-corruption law Berlusconi should have automatically and, to use the words of the statute, “immediately” lost his senate seat, but the initial reporter on the case, a PdL senator, had concentrated on possible appeals against this law to the Consulta (constitutional court), the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the European Union Court in Luxembourg. This led to his report being rejected on September 18 and the appointment of a new reporter, a member of the soft-left Sinistra Ecologia Libertà.
By October 15, Berlusconi has to choose whether to face house arrest or ask to be allowed to do community service - the two real options that are in all likelihood going to be offered to him in place of the nominal four-year prison sentence imposed upon him for tax fraud by the Cassazione (supreme court) on August 1, a sentence automatically reduced to one year by a pardon law (indulto) passed by a previous legislature. On October 6 Berlusconi’s most eminent lawyer, Franco Coppi, announced that, unless he got instructions to the contrary within a few days, his client would be applying to do community service before the deadline.
Such a request, assuming it is officially made and that the criminal tycoon does not abruptly change his mind yet again, has some advantages, both because it will not be considered immediately, as the relevant magistrates have a backlog of other cases to consider, and because somebody carrying out community service has rather more freedom to meet people outside his immediate family - and thus to engage in some form of political activity - than somebody under house arrest, even if they would be subjected to far more restrictions than Berlusconi is used to.3 However, any application to do community service is a de facto acknowledgement of guilt; house arrest would be the default penalty, regardless of any acceptance of the verdict, and would therefore be more compatible with Berlusconi’s claim, made in his 16-minute video broadcast shown in full on his own channels4 on September 18, in which he pleaded, “I am innocent, I am totally innocent”, accompanying this ludicrous claim with much melodramatic banging of the desk in front of him.
Therefore, some believe, Berlusconi was rather annoyed by the speed with which Coppi announced their intention to embark on this course of action, which may not have been the one favoured by his longstanding in-house lawyer and PdL parliamentarian, Niccolò Ghedini. However, with the October 15 deadline fast approaching, Berlusconi is now playing for time in any way he can and the strong prospect of remaining a free man until the spring of 2014 presumably outweighs the humiliation of pleading for the lesser penalty.5
After his performance on October 2, Berlusconi cannot really seek political martyrdom with any conviction, despite his earlier talk of a willingness to go to jail and absurd comparisons he drew between himself and Nelson Mandela.
A more consistent figure would have forced the PdL ‘rebels’ to show their hand in a confidence vote which took the form of an individual public roll call, not a secret ballot or a procedure based on pressing voting buttons of the kind so often used in the Italian parliament, which has become notorious for the scope it offers to friends and colleagues to vote on behalf of absentees. It is impossible to judge what the outcome would have been if these previously subservient and obsequious courtiers, who owed their entire political careers to their political patron, had been put to the test, since those earlier in the alphabet would have had no certainty that the remaining conspirators would not have broken ranks. Even had the ‘traitors’ been sufficient in number to preserve the Letta government, he could have reaped political dividends as leader of the opposition and might well have been able to topple an unstable and heterogeneous majority and precipitate an early general election within months.
In reality Berlusconi at bay proved a far less heroic figure than ‘Il Caimano’ of Nanni Moretti’s famous anti-Berlusconi film, who in the finale organises a violent uprising against the magistrates who have sentenced him.
It should be stressed that Berlusconi will be playing for time not just in relation to the request to undertake community service, but also in relation to the ban on public office. The verdict of the Milan appeal court on the length of the ban on his holding of public office is due on October 19. The Cassazione, when on August 1 it overturned the original five-year ban imposed by the lower court as disproportionate in relation to the offence, told the Milanese judges to apply a penalty in the range of one to three years. This is considerably lower than the potential six-year ban on parliamentary office that would automatically be imposed on Berlusconi under the Severino law - passed in December 2012 with the full support of the PdL parliamentarians in both houses.
If the Milanese court imposes a penalty at the lower end of the spectrum recommended to it, Berlusconi may not even choose to appeal against it to the Cassazione (which in other circumstances would be an obvious delaying tactic), since if he has already been expelled from the senate by the judges, the procedure under the Severino law would have been overtaken by events - the senate could not expel somebody who was no longer a senator. A ban of a year or two would probably give him some hope of continuing his political career, whilst for the 77-year-old fraudster, a six-year ban would signal the end of the road.
Silvio Berlusconi may have one last card to play - a far from heroic one, reminiscent of a card sharp’s underhand trick rather than the last, reckless throw of the gambler’s dice that he ultimately drew back from on October 2. Despite demands for a public vote from the right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and some individual PD parliamentarians, such as the former magistrate Felice Casson, there is every likelihood that the vote of the full senate on Berlusconi’s expulsion - if it occurs and is not overtaken by the courts’ verdict on the matter - will be by secret ballot.
The disgraceful episode in April, when 101 PD grand electors failed to vote for Romano Prodi, the PD’s presidential candidate in a secret ballot, has given rise to widespread concern as to what might happen if the senate votes on Berlusconi’s fate. M5S claims that about 40 PD senators will vote to save Berlusconi in any secret ballot, whilst some in the PD are saying that M5S leader Beppe Grillo will cynically instruct some of his senators to vote for Berlusconi in order to put the blame for this on the PD. M5S declares that the PD and the PdL are once again in cahoots and that the entire corrupt system which saved Berlusconi can only be swept away by a new election leading to an M5S majority government.
The PD’s claims about M5S’s nefarious plan seem, in part at any rate, to rest on an analogy with the alleged behaviour in 1992 of the racist-regionalist Lega Nord and the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano parliamentarians in voting to save former Socialist Party prime minister Bettino Craxi in a secret ballot in order to put the blame on the establishment parties and sweep away the First Republic - it is not clear what, if any, evidence exists to support this version of the events of 1992. On the other hand, there is little doubt that Berlusconi has been quite prepared to bribe parliamentarians to change sides in the past - Naples magistrates are currently conducting a criminal investigation into a €3-million bribe that a former Italia dei Valori senator claims to have received from Berlusconi to change party during the second Prodi government and there is no other plausible explanation for Berlusconi’s surprise victory in the confidence vote of December 14 2010 as a result of sufficient defectors from the centre left coming forward to outweigh Gianfranco Fini’s belated rebellion against the PdL.
Whilst it would be premature to announce the political demise of somebody who has proved to be a veritable Houdini, escaping from one tight corner after another over the last 20 years, after the volte-face of October 2 Berlusconi is no longer as serious a threat to the survival of Letta’s grand coalition and it is harder to envisage him making the electoral comeback that would enable him to mount an all-out challenge to the judiciary.
1. His only support on the committee came from the PdL and a closely allied list, the GAL.
2. Movimento Cinque Stelle members of the committee had called for longer and more frequent sessions in a bid to speed the process up - something to which the PD gave little or no support, even if some PD members complained quite vigorously about PdL manoeuvres to slow the process down. It is difficult to gauge whether the M5S proposals were practicable, given greater political will to put an end to Berlusconi’s antics, since the committee normally meets relatively rarely and for short sessions.
3. He would in effect be subjected to a curfew, as he could not leave home after 11pm or before 6am, as well as being unable to travel abroad, or at night, or to leave the region where he is officially resident (see Corriere della Sera October 6). Significantly, Berlusconi officially changed his place of residence from Arcore in Lombardy, where his famous country house is located, to Rome, where his Palazzo Grazioli is situated near both parliament and his new party headquarters, a few weeks ago. He had already decided that, whether he opted for house arrest or community service, he could not risk being exiled from the centre of Italy’s political life, even if his business interests are largely concentrated in Milan.
4. RAI Uno, the equivalent of BBC1, only showed some highlights; the failure of the state channels to broadcast the message in full is a symptom of Berlusconi’s decline, although showing such a message from a convicted man without heavy editorial comment on state television shows that he is still a force to be reckoned with and is not yet treated as a common criminal.
5. This obviously marks a change from his earlier refusals to ask for a presidential pardon or even agree to his children sending off a request for one on his behalf - refusals he motivated by his adamant assertion that, as an innocent man, he could not possibly ask for a pardon when he had committed no crime.