Italy’s Berlusconi Is Forced to Back Down in Parliament—Will He Now Bow Out?

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Tony Gentile / Reuters

Italian center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi leaves during a confidence vote at the Senate in Rome, Oct. 2, 2013.

On the surface, Italy‘s day ended as it began—with the country’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta in an uneasy, unstable alliance with the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. In a last minute speech in the Italian senate on Oct. 2, Berlusconi, the sex scandal-plagued former prime minister, declared he would support the government in a vote of confidence, bringing to an end a political crisis he had been instrumental in creating. “We have decided, not without inner turmoil, to vote in confidence of the government,” said Berlusconi. The final vote in the senate was 235 to 70 in favor of the government.

But the hours leading up to the vote had revealed deep fissures in Berlusconi’s once dominant People of Liberty party. On Oct. 1, several of his supporters—including his political heir Angelo Alfano—had openly broken with Berlusconi, declaring they would go against his wishes and vote in favor of the government. Last week, nearly all the senators in his party had threatened to resign if the senate stripped Berlusconi of his seat, a requirement following the one-year sentence for tax fraud handed out to Berlusconi in August. On the morning of the vote, 25 members of his party declared they would defect, forming an independent parliamentary group, and support Letta, almost certainly providing the current prime minister with the votes he need to survive.

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Berlusconi’s last minute reversal—earlier he had sat and watched while one his closest allies excoriated the government—allowed him to escape what would have been one of the most significant political defeats of his career. It leaves Letta’s government strengthened, but not immune to further attempts to bring it down as it takes on the thankless, difficult challenge of reforming Italy’s enfeebled economy, while keeping fiscal discipline within limits set by the European Union.

For Berlusconi, the future remains equally uncertain. He is one of his country’s most formidable politicians, with a large personal war chest, control of much of the country’s media, and an uncanny ability to measure the Italian pulse. In the past, he has survived sex scandals and court convictions that would have ended the careers of less able politicians. Recent polls consistently put his party at or near the head of the pack. “Within the right, he’s still the only one that commands attention on the part of the public,” says Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist at Rome’s John Cabot University. “His capacity to dictate the line has been reduced. But he’ll remain the father figure in his party and serve as the motivation for the mobilization of his electorate.”

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On Oct. 4, a special Senate committee is expected to begin proceedings to strip Berlusconi of his senate seat. The conviction also includes a one-year sentence, and by mid-month, Berlusconi has to decide how to serve the sentence. His choices include house arrest—in which case his ability to lead his party would be severely curtailed—or, as he’s expected to choose, community service, most likely in a dignified office job or outreach program. “As long as Berlusconi is around, Italian politics will never be normal,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “The real end will only come when he is defeated in the ballot box.” After Berlusconi had completed his speech, the cameras caught him sitting, with his hands covering his face, his shoulders lightly shaking. It wasn’t clear if he was crying or if he was laughing.

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