SILVIO Berlusconi was due to give up his passport to police last night in the wake of his conviction for tax evasion, the first in a series of looming blows to his prestige.
The three-times prime minister was handed a four-year sentence by Italy’s supreme court on Thursday. It will be cut to one year as a result of an amnesty law, meaning that Berlusconi must choose by October between 12 months of house arrest or community service.
Judges ordered a lower court to re-evaluate the ban on public office that was originally part of Berlusconi’s sentence, but in any case the four-year conviction carries with it an automatic ban on seeking public office, because of an anti-corruption law passed with the support of Berlusconi’s own party last year.
Additionaly, since the 76-year-old media mogul is already a senator, he will face a senate vote on his expulsion, which could take weeks or months to arrange.
Questions may also be raised over whether Berlusconi’s TV channels can continue to hold public licences to broadcast.
The likely battle in the senate over Berlusconi’s expulsion between his supporters and members of the centre-left Democratic Party, who are currently in an uneasy coalition government, could yet bring tensions to the boil and topple the administration.
As two under-secretaries faithful to Berlusconi resigned in the wake of the verdict, prime minister Enrico Letta said yesterday that it would be a “crime” if the government collapsed as it tried to reverse Italy’s spiralling recession, but warned he would not stay “at all costs”.
“This government is already fragile,” said Giancarlo Galan, a former Berlusconi minister. “I don’t know if it will be able to resist the heat that is coming.”
Berlusconi showed no sign of seeking to calm the waters, issuing a defiant video message on Thursday announcing the relaunch of his old Forza Italia political party, while yesteray he summoned his MPs for a war council.
But one expert said Mr Letta would haven a few months of breathing space.
“No-one wants to take responsibility for bringing down the government,” said Alessandro Campi, a professor of political science at Perugia University.
“Early elections would provoke unbearable speculation in the markets. Waiting for three to five months will also allow people to get a better idea of Berlusconi’s future,” he said.
That could depend on how the flamboyant showman reacts to being stuck inside one of his huge villas on house arrest, potentially barred from giving interviews.
“He can’t be a candidate, so what will he do? Hand over the reins to his daughter, like Le Pen has done in France?” asked Prof Campi.
Berlusconi’s daughter, Marina, 46, is seen as a tougher character than his son, Pier Silvio.
But leading party figure Renato Brunetta said there was no substituting the man who has dominated Italy for two decades.
Leaders are leaders because they represent a people, or a section of the population, they represent history, the past, the present, the future, he said.
“Leadership is this, leadership is charisma,” he added. “We all need to know what Berlusconi will do next.”
Berlusconi said on Thursday night that the supreme court’s decision to uphold his tax-fraud conviction and jail sentence was “baseless” and robbed him of his political rights.
Berlusconi delivered a nine-minute video statement. He appeared shaken and sombre, his voice breaking at times.
He said he was the victim of “an incredible series of accusations and trials that had nothing to do with reality”.
He denounced a decision “which is based on nothing and which deprives me of my freedom and political rights”.]