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Craxi, also mired in scandal, was the most polarizing figure in Italian politics, until Berlusconi.
Back in 1993, Craxi’s defense boiled down to an admission of guilt qualified by an insistence that he was being singled out for acting no different than any other political figure of the time. In stark contrast, Berlusconi has never admitted wrongdoing in any of his cases. In previous trials, he escaped prosecution because the statute of limitations ran out, because the judges were found guilty of conflicts of interest, because the charges were dismissed, because of technical flaws in the prosecution’s case, or, in at least one case, because key evidence mysteriously disappeared.
Despite Berlusconi’s track record of avoiding prosecution, many in Italy believe the case involving Ruby, the underage dancer, may prove to be Berlusconi’s undoing — either because the case against him is so strong that he will not be able to wiggle free (the main charge is abuse of power: it is well documented that he lied to law enforcement to help get Ruby off the hook when she was picked up for shoplifting), or because the embarrassment of the trial (that is where the secondary charges of paying a minor for sex play a role) will make it impossible for him to command a political coalition.
When the Italian political establishment crumbled in Italy after Tangentopoli, it left a political vacuum that helped give rise to Berlusconi — a figure nobody could have imagined in politics just a year before he first slipped on the prime minister’s sash. As scandal engulfed him in the past year, he has held onto power because he has no serious political rivals. The opposition parties remain divided, former allies that have abandoned his coalition have failed to gain traction, and over the years he has methodically eviscerated any potential threats within his own party.
If Berlusconi falls, it will clearly create another political vacuum. But if we want to speculate not about Italian politics after Berlusconi’s fall, but about what might happen to Berlusconi, then perhaps Craxi’s final act may provide a last lesson.
Within a year of being showered in coins outside the Hotel Raphael, the newly convicted Craxi boarded a flight to leave Italy forever, fleeing to a vacation villa he owned in Tunisia rather than face jail time. (Terminally ill in late 1999, Craxi begged the Italian government and his former protege, Berlusconi, then between his first two tenures as prime minister, for help in obtaining a pardon so he could return to Italy to die. They refused.)
With Berlusconi’s hopes of retiring from politics to take on the largely symbolic and dignified role of Italy’s president (the office plays the same role as the king in many European countries) almost surely ruined by the embarrassing allegations swirling around him, whispers among political insiders in Italy are that if faced with a prison term, Berlusconi, who will be 75 in September, could similarly flee the country.
Where to? The most likely place, according to people in the know, is Antigua, where Berlusconi already owns a $29 million cliff-side villa and where, according to Italian news reports, Antiguan-European extradition treaties only apply for capital crimes — one of the few things Berlusconi has not been accused of.