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As Italy’s economy melts down, a distracted Berlusconi battles to survive. Can he?
ROME, Italy — It’s not hard to imagine a smile crossing the face of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when he learned early this month that an Italian appeals court had overturned Amanda Knox’s conviction for the murder of her flat mate, Meredith Kercher.
That’s not a comment on the empathy that Italy’s womanizing prime minister may have had for the fate of the attractive young American exchange student who had spent four years in prison for a crime she had not committed.
Rather, for Berlusconi, the acquittal was ammunition in his pitched battle with Italy's magistrates.
The prime minister has long accused magistrates of attempting to overthrow him. “There are some [magistrates] who want to subvert democracy” by bringing him down, he said in a speech to Parliament in early October. He also recently told Il Foglio newspaper that “despite systematic espionage and obsessive inquiries against me,” the judiciary would not be able to “compromise the sovereignty of the people who elected me.” (In Italy, magistrates play a role similar to prosecutors in the U.S.)
After Knox’s acquittal, the head of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party Angelino Alfano, a former justice minister, joined the offensive. He quipped that, “in Italy, magistrates never pay for their mistakes,” pointing to the time Knox and her former boyfriend and co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, spent in jail.
Alfano was “exploiting the verdict” to “attack the judiciary,” said Massimo Donadi, a deputy for the Italy of Values party. His goal? To discredit the magistrates in order to “protect Berlusconi from his trials.”
As allies of the media tycoon-turned-politician are quick to point out, court cases against Berlusconi have so far failed to bring a clear-cut conviction against him.
That’s not to say he was always exonerated either. Many trials against Berlusconi have been thwarted by Italy's statute of limitations. Despite the country’s notoriously slow judicial system, Berlusconi’s government has cut the time limit, from ten years to six, for prosecuting many crimes, including some that affected the prime minister and associates.
Recently, the prime minister’s assault on the courts has taken on renewed urgency. A string of scandals allegedly involving Berlusconi began emerging in the spring of 2009, culminating with the case of Moroccan belly-dancer ‘Ruby the Heart-Stealer’ who has taken part in so-called ‘bunga bunga’ parties at Berlusconi’s villa when she was still underage.
An inquiry into the case — including the prime minister’s alleged abetment of prostitution — is still ongoing. Berlusconi has been charged with hiring a juvenile prostitute.
Regardless of the outcome, the matter has proven embarrassing to Berlusconi.
In one wiretapped conversation, he was heard asking Valter Lavitola — a journalist and fixer who took refuge in Bulgaria after Italian police issued an arrest warrant for him — for a ‘suggestion’ on the appointment of the deputy head of the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s financial police.
Italian newspapers also reported that in another wiretapped conversation, he had called German Chancellor Angela Merkel an “unfuckable lard-arse.”
Under normal circumstances, that revelation may merely strain relations between the leaders. But given Italy’s current fiscal crisis, Berlusconi could eventually find himself pleading with Merkel for a financial rescue.
Under Berlusconi’s leadership for eight of the last ten years, Italy has wracked up debt equal to 120 percent of its gross domestic product. That’s the worst in Europe after Greece. All three major ratings agencies have recently downgraded Italy’s credit rating, making it more expensive for the government to borrow and pushing Italy toward the brink of crisis.
Read more: Italy's debt crisis, explained.
“The country is in a critical condition,” warned Emma Marcegaglia, president of Confindustria, the country’s main business association. She urged the government to act “very quickly” or for it to resign. Massimo Gramellini, one of Italy’s most prominent commentators, wrote this week that “the general feeling is that the prime minster is now ‘out of control’ just like the overall situation.”
Political progress has slowed to a standstill.
Despite the urgent nature of the fiscal crisis, Berlusconi has failed to secure a new central bank governor. The outgoing chief of Banca d’Italia, Mario Draghi, will take over the European Central Bank at the end of October. The natural successor for the job, Draghi’s deputy, Fabrizio Saccomanni, has been vetoed by the government’s coalition partners. A weakened Berlusconi stands impotent to overcome the vetoes.
Instead of focusing on the fiscal crisis, his allies in Parliament are fighting on behalf of their leader. They’ve been working to curb wiretapping — to thwart the embarrassing leaks to the press – and to make the statute of limitations even shorter. But his majority is now so fractured that even these projects have not progressed. Instead, the prime minister’s troubles have triggered infighting in his government. Lieutenants and would-be-successors are jostling for the spotlight in the event of his downfall.
In a move described by critics as a desperate attempt to protect his boss, Minister of Justice Francesco Nitto Palma has launched an inquiry on the magistrates investigating Berlusconi in Naples and Bari, to make sure they themselves hadn’t breached the law.
To his critics, Berlusconi remains out of touch with the gravity of the moment. At times he seems determined to bury himself. In early October, he joked to his deputies that he planned to change his party’s name to “Forza Gnocca,” or “Go Pussy.”
Read more: Italy's state rail crushes private competitor.
Despite laughing at his jokes, his allies now know that he is a liability in front of voters. In a significant shift, his name has now disappeared from campaign placards for local elections across the country.
Further adding to the paralysis, on Oct. 11 Parliament rejected a key budget law, leading opposition leaders to renew their calls for Berlusconi’s resignation. The prime minister has responded to the latest defeat in Parliament by calling a confidence vote on his government on Friday Oct. 14.
“Berlusconi will never resign” political analyst Alessandro Campi told GlobalPost, “because he knows that there is so much resentment against him that when he gives up power, his companies and his own freedom will be at risk.” He has already shown he is able to muster a majority when he has to save his job, Campi said. Many deputies know they would not stand a chance of being re-elected in the event of a snap election.
Perhaps more importantly, even if he survives Friday’s vote, Italy’s looming crisis would still be without an answer.