Judges Reject Silvio Berlusconi’s Appeal, but His Political Appeal Endures

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Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a Senate session on July 19, 2013, in Rome, where his top aide, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, faces a vote of nonconfidence

For the first time, after more than two decades of high-profile judicial battles, Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been definitively convicted of a crime. After seven hours of deliberation Thursday, the judges in Italy’s highest court emerged from their chamber to reject his final appeal on charges of tax fraud — and therefore confirming a one-year prison sentence, while sending back for a review a five-year ban from public office. He was originally sentenced last October.

Berlusconi was accused, along with three others, of using offshore companies to purchase the rights to American movies, reselling them to his media empire at markup in order to pay lower taxes. The sentence is a blow for the 76-year-old billionaire, but Berlusconi has made a career of proving the writers of his political obituaries wrong. Because of his age and the nature of his crime, Berlusconi is unlikely to see the inside of a prison cell. He will serve his sentence — originally for four years but commuted to one — either under house arrest or performing community service. While the ban on public office is under review, a process that could take months, the conservative politico will be able to keep his position as Senator and de facto head of his political party. “Politically, he’s still very much alive,” says Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist at Rome’s John Cabot University. “This will weaken him, but he can continue to be a leader, a symbol for the right.”

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In his 20 years in politics, Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men and the owner of a large swath of the country’s media, has faced trial some 30 times, on charges ranging from perjury to illegal financing of a political party to the bribing of a member of the tax police. Every other time, he’s managed to get the charges overturned or dropped. Another conviction, in June, for prostitution with a minor and abusing his office to cover it up, is under appeal and is expected to be back in the courts in October.

Berlusconi has long maintained that his judicial travails are the fault of a politicized judicial system determined to oust him from politics. And so his conviction is unlikely to result in a serious drop in support. Indeed, in a video address broadcast after the conviction, he struck a defiant tone and promised to continue the fight. “Those who saw him as a crook will feel vindicated by today’s result,” says Duncan McDonnell, a fellow in the department of political and social sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. “Those that saw him as persecuted will also feel vindicated.”

If anything, the verdict places as much pressure on Berlusconi’s fellow politicians as it does on him. For the past two decades, Italian politics has revolved around the media mogul; the country’s government hinges on a fragile coalition between those who support him and those who have traditionally opposed him. Berlusconi’s conviction and his eventual ban from public office, for an expected one to three years, will put it under increasing strain.

His center-right People of Freedom party, many of whose members threatened to resign if the conviction was upheld, has appeared rudderless without him, not least because it seems Berlusconi never groomed a credible successor. Meanwhile, the center-left Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Enrico Letta, already rife with discontent at having to form a partnership with the man many consider an archnemesis, is likely to experience further discord now that its chief interlocutor in government has become a convicted criminal. In a political landscape where Berlusconi still casts the largest shadow, all must tread carefully. “He’s like the bottom block of a Jenga puzzle,” says McDonnell. “You take him out and it all collapses.”

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