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Italy: Is Berlusconi really bowing out this time?

The billionaire’s threat to bring down the government has fizzled, but his influence remains deep.

Berlusconi 11 05 2012Enlarge
Berlusconi has blamed everyone from journalists to Angela Merkel for his sentence. (Giuseppe Cacae/AFP/Getty Images)

ROME, Italy — Silvio Berlusconi's political career has risen from the grave more than once before. 

This time, however, Italians are wondering if the lid has finally come down on an era defined by the billionaire businessman.

"So ends a Titanic affair," wrote Ezio Mauro, editor of the left-leaning daily La Repubblica, in an editorial that chronicled the former three-time prime minister’s "fall from grace and definitive decline."

"Within just a few days, a sad era lasting almost 20 years has ended," Antonio Di Pietro, opposition politician and former anti-corruption magistrate blogged on HuffPost Italia.

Last month, a Milan court convicted Berlusconi of tax fraud. He was sentenced to four years in prison and banned from public office.

Judges characterized the 76-year-old media magnate as having a "natural capacity for crime."

Although the verdict was a surprise blow — Berlusconi accused the judges of a political witch-hunt — he’s bounced back from previous convictions and is unlikely to serve time on the current charges.

It was the events that followed the court ruling that may have sealed his loss of influence this time.

Berlusconi summoned reporters to a news conference the following day to lash out at everyone he blamed for his woes — from Italy's judges and journalists to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Then he threatened to bring down the government of Mario Monti, the economics professor who succeeded him with a brief to save Italy from financial collapse.

Berlusconi's bluster spooked the markets, which feared Italy could stumble into turmoil that would undo Monti's efforts to steer the economy through the euro zone debt crisis.

However, Monti shrugged off the threat. Turning a parliamentary vote on an anti-corruption bill last week into a vote of confidence in his government, he won by 460 to 76 votes. The new leadership of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, or PDL, backed the law and distanced itself from his warning.

Markets were reassured. By the end of last week, the interest Italy must pay on its benchmark 10-year bonds reached its lowest level in 18 months.

With no support from his party, Berlusconi backed away from his own threat. Several days after issuing it, he said he "would not wage a campaign" against Monti despite disagreeing with the prime minister's austerity policies.

Meanwhile, the PDL took a battering in regional elections in Sicily that were seen as a pointer for Italian politics ahead of a nationwide vote in the spring.

The party lost two-thirds of its vote share as support surged for the center-left and a new anti-establishment movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo.

However, the Sicilian vote reinforced a longer-term threat to Monti's drive to cut the national debt and improve economic performance after a decade of stagnation — by underscoring the fractious nature of Italy's political landscape.

Appointed a year ago after mounting pressure on public finances forced Berlusconi to step down, Monti has done much to restore international confidence in his country. The unelected technocrat also retains strong support among voters despite his introduction of tough austerity measures.

A poll for the La7 TV network last week gave him a 50 percent approval rating and named him Italians’ most popular choice for prime minister.

Although Monti has said he won't take part in elections expected in April, he's offered to stay on if no clear political winner emerges.

The La7 poll shows no party has gained an overall majority. The center-left Democratic Party led with 29 percent, followed by Grillo's maverick Five Star Movement with 18 percent and Berlusconi’s right-wing PDL with 16 percent.

With primaries due in the coming months, many on the center-left are hoping their rising star, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, will emerge as a consensual leader who would form a stable government by forging an alliance between the Democratic Party and centrist groups.

At the same time, moderates within the PDL hope their post-Berlusconi party will form the nucleus of a new center-right coalition. Both sides have suggested Monti could play a role in a post-election administration.

However, national success for Grillo's anti-party movement or a surge in support for others outside the political mainstream could throw either of those coalition calculations into chaos.

And there is lingering talk that Berlusconi could yet revive his fortunes — perhaps by forming a new nationalist party that would exploit fears Merkel's Germany is dictating economic policy to Italy and other southern European countries.

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Despite his setbacks, the flamboyant style and media reach of the man called Il Cavaliere (The Knight) has helped him leave a mark on the national psyche few of his rivals can match.

"Monti? We don't really know too much about him,” said a student named Allegra outside Rome's hip Caffe Peru. “Ask us about something else."

Berlusconi's name, in contrast, draws a quick response. "He should come back,” declared a high-school senior named Flamina, to a chorus of disagreement from her classmates. “Even if his private life is not so nice, he did good things."

In the end, it may be Berlusconi's private life, including his reported weakness for teenage girls, that really ends his thoughts about a political comeback.

Last week, Real Madrid soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo was named a defense witness in Berlusconi's ongoing trial on charges of paying for sex with a 17-year-old dancer who went by the name of Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heartstealer).

If found guilty, Berlusconi could face a three-year prison sentence. Even he would have trouble coming back from that. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/italy/121105/italy-berlusconi-monti-politics