“I will not go into exile like Bettino Craxi was forced to,” said Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as he awaited the outcome of his final appeal against a four-year prison sentence for tax fraud. (Craxi, another former prime minister and a friend and protector of Berlusconi’s, fled to Tunisia and died in exile after being convicted of corruption and sentenced to nine years in prison).
“If they convict me, if they take that responsibility upon themselves, I’ll go to jail,” Berlusconi continued. Brave words, but they would have been even more impressive if Berlusconi, who is 76, didn’t know that criminals over the age of 70 almost never get sent to prison in Italy.
Last week Italy’s highest court rejected Berlusconi’s last appeal and confirmed his sentence, although in practice it is unlikely to amount to more than a year’s house arrest.
However, it did not confirm the lower court’s decision to ban him, as a convicted criminal, from holding political office for five years. That will be reviewed by a lower court, and may not be decided for many months.
So for the moment, at least, Berlusconi can go on being a senator, and the leader of his People of Freedom party, and in effect the co-leader of the coalition that now governs Italy.
He has already been convicted and sentenced to jail for two other offences that are going through the appeal process now, but “lo psiconano”, the psychotic dwarf (as rival politician Beppe Grillo calls him), still dominates the Italian political horizon.
Silvio Berlusconi has been at the centre of Italian politics for the past twenty years, half the time as prime minister, but there is reason to believe that he first went into politics mainly to avoid various criminal prosecutions.
You cannot be tried while you are prime minister, and if you stay in office long enough the cases expire because of the statute of limitations. (And while in office, Berlusconi changed the law to make them expire more quickly.)
So it was only when he lost power in 2011 that the many pending cases against him could go ahead. The results, so far, have been three convictions.
The first was for tax fraud, in a case where his Mediaset company paid false invoices, hundreds of millions of euros too high, for distribution rights to US films. (The excess money went into an overseas, tax-free slush fund.)
The second was for leaking a police wiretap to one of his publications. And the third was for having sex with an under-age prostitute and abusing his prime ministerial powers to get her out of jail.
The prostitute, 17 at the time, was a Moroccan erotic dancer working under the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (Heart-Stealer). She attended one of Berlusconi’s notorious “bunga bunga” parties, and out of the dozen or so women there, she was the one who attracted the great man’s special attention.
So he took her upstairs, gave her 7,000 euros, and (in his version) sent her home untouched. Later on he also gave her jewellery, lots more money, and an Audi – and when she was arrested on suspicion of theft, he called up the police station and got her released by claiming, untruthfully, that she was the grand-daughter of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Charges were laid, and even though Berlusconi gave 127,000 euros to three key witnesses just before the trial began, he was found guilty last June.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison and a lifetime ban on holding public office. That case has now also started its way through the lengthy appeals process, but one by one the doors are shutting against Berlusconi.
How did he get away with it for so long? One reason is a justice system so inefficient and overloaded that it’s easy for a rich man with good lawyers to string a case out until it dies of old age. Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy, and Italy has 9 million court cases pending. (There are only 60 million Italians.)
The larger reason is that Berlusconi, for all his sleaze and corruption, is a brilliant politician. His unique achievement was to create a coalition of north Italian racists, central and south Italian post-fascists, and just plain conservative Catholics, and hold it together for almost two decades.
That coalition is gradually disintegrating now, but it blocked the modernisation of Italian politics that should have followed the “Tangentopoli” scandals and the collapse of the old political parties in the early 1990s for a full two decades.
Berlusconi’s departure from politics will be good for Italy, but his long time in office has done permanent harm to the country’s economy and its political and legal systems. And what will he do when he is finally banned from politics?
Well, he may have to spend a year under house arrest, but he has lots of very big houses, and lots of young women will still come to the parties of such a generous man.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.