Silvio Berlusconi has vowed to stay at the centre of Italian politics despite his expected expulsion from parliament over a tax fraud conviction.
He made a long-awaited television address last night in which he admitted for the first time that he faces expulsion from the Italian senate but accused left-wing judges of perverting Italian democracy.
A senate committee is poised to take the first steps to secure his expulsion. However, Mr Berlusconi made no repeat of his threats to bring down the Left-Right coalition of prime minister Enrico Letta as a result of his conviction.
“I will always be with you, at your side, expelled from parliament or not. It is not the parliamentary seat that makes a leader,” the 76-year-old billionaire said in a 16-minute speech. He called for centre-right voters to rally behind the relaunched Forza Italia party, with which he first entered politics in 1994.
It is thought he had made several versions of the TV address, deciding only at the last moment which one to broadcast.
The supreme court last month confirmed a four-year jail term, commuted to one year, on Berlusconi for a giant fraud at his Mediaset television empire. He is expected to go into house arrest or do community service for up to a year.
But he rejected suggestions that he should give up his leadership of the centre-right because of his removal from parliament and the restriction of his liberty. He called for Italians who loved freedom to “wake up, worry, rebel, become indignant, react and make yourself heard”.
“The judiciary has transformed itself into a rival state power, capable of influencing the executive,” he said.
Once again, he declared himself “absolutely innocent” and vowed to try to have his conviction overturned at Italy’s constitutional court and the European human rights court.
Berlusconi wants to seize the initiative despite his conviction by replacing his People of Freedom (PDL) party with Forza Italia to revitalise centre-right voters and appeal to young people.
PDL secretary Angelino Alfano said on Tuesday his leader would make a final decision on the government’s survival only after the senate vote, where Mr Letta’s Democratic Party (PD), says it will support expulsion.
The senate committee is expected to reject a recommendation by a senior PDL member of the panel, Andrea Augello, to confirm Berlusconi as a senator.
It will then elect a left-wing replacement for Mr Augello – there is an anti-Berlusconi majority in the committee – who will draw up a recommendation to expel him. That should be voted on by early October after which the case goes to the full senate for a final decision expected by mid-October.
Political sources say Berlusconi appears to have listened to PDL doves, business allies and members of his family who believe sparking a crisis now could badly rebound on the centre-right as well as damaging his media empire financially.
Italy is mired in its worst postwar recession and Berlusconi risks taking the blame for irresponsibly worsening the crisis if he provokes more instability over his legal problems. Polls show a large majority of Italians are against snap elections.
The depth of Mr Letta’s problems was underlined yesterday when a government source said the finance ministry was considering delaying the target of a balanced structural budget from 2013 to 2014.
The eurozone’s third largest economy is lagging behind many of its peers in climbing out of recession, partly because Mr Letta’s government is too divided to pass vital reforms.
Earlier this week, Italy’s highest court upheld a ruling that Berlusconi’s family investment company must pay a huge fine for corruption, but gave it a small discount on the multi-million euro judgment.
The court of cassation rejected most of Fininvest’s objections to lower courts’ rulings against it for corruption in the purchase of the Mondadori publishing house, a key step in the creation of Berlusconi’s media empire in the 1990s.
An appeals court had awarded a rival media company €564 million (£472m), down from an initial €750m. In its final ruling, the court of cassation reduced the amount to €540m.