By Alessandro Bianchi
Four-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lost his court case, but not his magic.
Tensions were high three days after he was definitively convicted for tax fraud on August 1. No one knew whether the unpredictable leader of Italy’s center-right for the past two decades would quit politics or not.
After avoiding conviction in dozens of other cases over the years, an appeals court upheld a four-year jail sentence – commuted to one year – for the media mogul, and because of a recently passed corruption law, he also faced a ban from public office. To deliver his response to the ruling, Berlusconi did what comes naturally to him – he called his die-hard supporters to rally around him in a public square.
Organizers set up a stage in front of the billionaire leader’s Rome residence, the 17th century Grazioli palace. Hundreds turned out, waving Italian flags and chanting derogatory slogans about the country’s “communist” judges. Minutes before the besieged leader appeared, dozens of signs reading “Go Italy! Go Berlusconi” were handed out to the crowd, and the scene was set. He made his entrance, walking at the center of a cluster of his usual throng of burly bodyguards, sporting his broad smile and dressed casually with a collarless blue shirt and a blue sport jacket.
He launched into an expected rant against the country’s politicized magistrates who want to eliminate him from politics and then made it clear he had no intention of quitting politics. “I’m here; I will stay here; I will not give up,” Berlusconi said. But, then the mood changed and his face darkened. With a sleight of hand, his bodyguards and image handlers left the stage, and his girlfriend Francesca Pascale, 49 years his junior, climbed up and stood near his side.