The single most important thing to know about Silvio Berlusconi‘s Oct. 26 conviction on charges of tax fraud is that it’s not the first time the former Italian prime minister has been sentenced to jail. In his two decades of battling the judicial system, the billionaire media mogul has previously been found guilty three times, on charges ranging from perjury to illegal financing of a political party to the bribing a member of the tax police. Each time, he’s managed to get the charges overturned or dropped. There’s little reason to suspect that this time will be any different. “When Americans see a newsflash that Berlusconi has been convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, they picture a paddy wagon around the corner ready to take him away in a prison suit,” says Alexander Stille, author of The Sack of Rome, a biography of the former prime minister. “But if you know any thing about the Italian justice system, you know that’s very unlikely that he’ll go to jail anytime soon, or probably ever.”
Berlusconi was convicted, along with three others, of using offshore companies to purchase the rights to American movies, reselling them to his media empire at markup, and funneling the profits into a secret slush fund. His longtime business partner, Fedele Confalonieri, and two others were acquitted.
The former prime minister received the longest sentence, of four years—reduced to one year because of an amnesty law—along with a three-year ban from serving in office. Neither punishment, however, will go into effect until Berlusconi has exhausted his appeals, a process which could take years. Meanwhile, in Italy, the statute of limitations keeps ticking even after the trial begins. For some charges in the case, the clock has already run out. Few believe a final judgment will be rendered before the rest expire next year. “The only part of the verdict that is effective immediately and can be enforced is the claim for damages, [some 10 million euros to be paid to Italy’s tax agency] ” says Markus Wiget, an expert in Italian penal system.
Politically, Berlusconi’s latest conviction is likely to be another stone in an ever enlarging pile weighing down his political fortunes. In the year since he stepped down as premier to make way for current Prime Minister Mario Monti, Berlusconi has kept a relatively low profile. But his People of Liberty party has been plagued by a series of high profile corruption scandals, in which the perpetrators have been largely unrepentant. Two days before the judgment was announced, the media tycoon said he would not be a candidate for prime minister in elections expected next spring. “He probably sensed this was coming,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “It will make the headlines, but in a few days people will forget.”
For all his fall from glory, Berlusconi remains perhaps the country’s most formidable and most powerful politician. Though he relinquished the premiership, he’s still a member of parliament—which grants him a degree of judicial immunity—and the head of its largest party, giving him a de facto veto on any legislation. He retains ownership of a large swathe of Italian media, including three of its four private television stations, and he is still one of the country’s richest men. Though his chances of returning to power are shrinking by the day, there’s a good chance he will continue to play a kingmaker role when the next legislature takes its seat. “He’s the cement holding his party together,” says D’Alimonte. “As long as he’s alive, he’s going to be there.”
Perhaps the biggest impact Friday’s news will have is on a piece of pending legislation wrenching its way through parliament, an anti-corruption bill that currently includes a measure that would bar those convicted of crime from holding office. Unlike Berlusconi, it’s unlikely to survive intact.