Silvio Berlusconi’s furious reaction to a conviction for paying for sex with an underage prostitute suggests a belligerent centre-right will intensify pressure on the coalition government to favour its policies, particularly concerning the hot-button issue of tax, analysts said Tuesday.
Political observers had warned a guilty verdict could provoke the capricious former premier into pulling support from Enrico Letta’s grand coalition, for failing to offer him legal protection.
Commentators Tuesday said the risks of that were limited for now, but the right would want payback for the harsh seven-year jail sentence and lifetime ban on holding public office inflicted by magistrates Berlusconi has long decried as “leftist” persecutors.
“Nothing will ever be the same again. The government will not fall but it will not be saved from the storm,” political analyst Stefano Folli said in Italy’s main business daily Il Sole 24 Ore. “It would not serve Berlusconi to bring down the grand coalition,” but “he will try and present himself as a sort of ‘defender’ of the people, unjustly persecuted,” Folli said.
The 76-year-old billionaire cannot afford to pull the plug just yet: polls show the left currently leads over the right, and any withdrawal from the coalition would open up the path to a damaging alliance between the left and the protest Five Star Movement.
Berlusconi can, however, drum up public support for having been handed a sentence even stiffer than that requested by prosecutors — who had called for him to be given six years in jail.
The media magnate late Monday slammed “an incredible sentence, of a violence never seen or heard before, handed down to try and eliminate me from political life,” and pledged to “resist this persecution (and not) abandon my fight to make Italy a truly free and just country.”
The sentence will be suspended until all appeals have been exhausted, a process likely to take years. According to Folli, the centre-right “may plausibly increase pressure on their keystone issues” such as blocking an increase on VAT and a loathed housing tax.
Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, said: “Berlusconi’s conviction adds another layer of political risk at a time when the Letta government is deeply divided over fiscal policy and Italy’s economy remains mired in recession.”
After interest rates rose at a debt auction on Tuesday, Spiro warned: “Further pressure on Italy’s bond market will inflame political tensions, with Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party heaping more pressure on Letta to take a tougher line with Germany and the European Central Bank.”
The government, says political editorialist for La Stampa daily Marcello Sorgi, risks remaining “as if suspended in mid air... without political margins for manoeuvre or the strength necessary to face the seriousness” of Italy’s recession.
Massimo Franco, political commentator for the Corriere della Sera daily, said the verdict was “a time-bomb” for the uneasy centre-left and right coalition, already suffering internal tensions.
“Not dumping his judicial misfortunes on the coalition, at least for now, validates Berlusconi as a responsible politician,” he said. “He has taken on the role of victim, which he excels at.”
“But what worry are the repercussions on a coalition which already has to perform daily acrobatics to survive,” he said.
James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome, said the conviction “turns up the heat” on Berlusconi, whose sentencing on Monday was just one of several legal woes.
A Milan court last month upheld his conviction for tax fraud connected to his Mediaset empire, confirming the punishment of a year in prison and a five-year ban from public office, frozen pending a second appeal.
A definitive ruling in that case is expected to fall around October this year.
“Berlusconi now has to use every weapon in his armoury to get out of this conviction. He will try to change the law, get a pre-emptive amnesty, anything to give him judicial protection,” Walston said.
Ordinary Italians were, as ever, divided over Berlusconi’s legal woes and his future in politics.
“I don’t believe he will pull support for the government... it would not work in his favour. I’m curious to see what he’ll come up with this time, he is certainly a cat with nine lives,” said 46-year-old Raffaele Lanzia, as he drank coffee in a bar in the centre of Rome.
Paola, a 35-year-old Italian nurse, said she thought Berlusconi likely had already struck a deal by which he would be made exempt from his legal responsibilities before the Mediaset verdict falls. “I’m sure there will be an amnesty soon, they wouldn’t have sentenced him otherwise,” she said.