Colpevole. Guilty. On a hot August Thursday evening in Rome, after two decades of investigations and trials - many of which he escaped due to laws passed by his own governments – Silvio Berlusconi was finally and definitively convicted of a crime. It is a massive moment in modern Italian history. The man who has dominated the country’s politics since he formed his own party and won the 1994 general election is, according to Italy’s legal system, a criminal.
At a quarter to eight, several hours later than anticipated, the judges of the Court of Cassation – the final level of the justice system to which Berlusconi could appeal previous rulings in the case – confirmed the conviction for his role in tax fraud by his Mediaset group in the early part of the last decade (while he was prime minister). He won’t go to jail, but it seems certain he will spend a year either under house arrest or doing community service. He gets to choose which and has previously indicated that he would prefer house arrest.
The irony of this outcome is that Berlusconi has been undone by his failure to tackle his huge personal conflict of interests. If he really had given up control of his media empire when he entered politics in early 1994, he would not find himself liable now for its actions. Instead, the judges decided that he had retained a level of involvement in his companies which made him responsible for their misdeeds. His need to be the boss - the only real boss of his businesses and his political party - ultimately undid him.
Huge political problems
What the wider effects on Italian politics of this verdict will be remains to be seen. A second part of the sentence, barring him from public office, has been sent back to a lower court due to a technical issue over the ban’s length (this is likely to be reduced to no more than three years). But whatever the result of this, the verdict and sentence already pose huge problems not only for his own party – the Popolo della Libertà (PDL – People of Freedom) – but also for the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD – Democratic Party) which has been a reluctant coalition partner of the PDL since February’s inconclusive general election. Two parties which have despised one another for years have been forced to govern together.
It is hard to overstate Berlusconi’s influence on Italy’s political system during the past 20 years. He has been its fulcrum, with elections at national and even regional level based on whether you were for or against him. As the most recent centre-left coalition election slogan “L’Italia giusta” (“a just Italy”) suggested, their main unifying point has been that they are opposed to Berlusconi. On much else, they are bitterly divided. Likewise, for the smaller parties of the centre and right-wing, the key question in alliance strategies has been whether they could stomach standing alongside Berlusconi. Taking him out of the party system is therefore a bit like removing the bottom block of a jenga tower. We have no idea how the pieces might fall.
End of the PDL?
One possible outcome is that we are moving towards the end of the PDL. As a personal party, it has never had a “plan B” in which the “B” does not stand for “Berlusconi”. In a recent article for the academic journal Political Studies, I discussed what makes up a “personal party” and presented material from interviews conducted across Italy between 2009 and 2010 with PDL elected representatives and members. From these, two things were abundantly clear. The first was that Berlusconi’s authority was unquestioned and that no other party figures came even close to him. The second was that many in the party felt it was unlikely to survive the end of his time in politics. Even those that were more optimistic acknowledged that there was no obvious replacement for the founder-leader. As the 2008 campaign song “Thank goodness for Silvio” underlined, the spotlight has always been firmly on the leader, with little room for anyone else.
In the short term in Italy, we will see outpourings of joy from some and indignation from others. Berlusconi is an extremely divisive figure who attracts strong emotions, both negative and positive. Those who thought that he was a crook will see their views vindicated by this verdict. But so too will those who thought he was a dynamic individual persecuted by left-wing judges. This is a perception of Berlusconi which finds little favour abroad where he is better known for his gaffes and sexual antics. But it is one that is firmly rooted among a considerable minority of Italians for whom Berlusconi is a victim, not an offender.
So, as someone rang to ask me earlier, “this is the end of Berlusconi, right?” Probably, yes. But you can be sure he will go down fighting. Whether it is an appeal to the European Courts, orchestrated political turmoil or some other ingenious strategy entirely, he will come up with something. Because, for all his flaws, what Berlusconi has – and has always had in abundance compared to his weak-willed adversaries – are guts, stamina and invention. Expect to see these out in force in the weeks ahead. The Italian summer just got even hotter.