Berlusconi must not take Italy down with him

October 9, 2009

Silvio Berlusconi seems determined to take Italy’s institutions down with him as he sinks slowly into a swamp of lawsuits and scandal. But his political allies should not tie their fate irrevocably to his.

When Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled this week that the prime minister was not above the law, invalidating a tailor-made statute granting him immunity from prosecution, Berlusconi’s reaction was to attack its members, and President Giorgio Napolitano, as leftists biased against him.

Berlusconi faces two trials, one for alleged bribery in which British lawyer David Mills has been convicted of taking a bribe from him. In the other, he is charged with tax evasion. He has denied all wrongdoing and described the cases as “real farces”.

These are the words of a man who was elected to uphold the constitution and the rule of law. Yet, each of the three times in the last 15 years that Berlusconi has won power, he has spent his first year or more enacting self-serving legislation to grant himself immunity, decriminalise accounting fraud and change the statute of limitations. His personal and business interests have taken precedence over governing Italy, which sorely needs reform.

It is now clear that if he remains in office, the next few years will be spent fighting legal battles inside and outside court, suing newspapers that dare question his moral probity and struggling to stifle scandals involving his sex life. There goes any prospect of shaking up Italy’s sclerotic economy, which was already feeble before the financial crisis and is expected to contract by 5 percent this year.

Berlusconi has made it clear that he has no intention of going voluntarily or quietly. But his political allies should consider whether the billionaire media magnate has become more of a liability than an asset to their own future.

As long as they faced a strong challenge from a united left, the charismatic populist was a vital vote-winner and financier of the Italian right. He was also the only politician who could tame the radical, anti-immigration Northern League and keep them in a ruling coalition. But with the left now divided, leaderless and in disarray, the rationale for clinging to him is much weaker.

Granted, Berlusconi remains surprisingly popular despite his legal problems and his wife’s filing for divorce over his disputed relationship with a minor, as well as revelations that he entertained prostitutes in his official residence. Yet he has gravely diminished Italy’s international standing, and his legal and personal troubles now threaten to damage its economic prospects too.

Ambitious conservative politicians such as lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini must be weighing the risks of regicide against the dangers of being dragged down by Berlusconi. For Italy’s sake, they should be bold, and swift.

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