For once Italy has something to celebrate. On Wednesday the Senate voted to kick out Silvio Berlusconi, billionaire media magnate and leader of the Right for 20 odd years.
The three time Prime minister has been deserted by many supporters on the Right (led by his political ‘heir’ Angelino Alfano) as well as (mostly) willing accomplices on the centre Left.
What prompted the vote was Berlusconi’s definitive conviction for tax fraud at his Mediaset television empire on 1 August. His ousting was deemed necessary under an anti-corruption law passed last year that bans anyone with a conviction of more than two years from holding elected office or standing for office for six years.
In the senate on Wednesday, centre-left MPs from the Democratic party (PD) joined the upstart Five Star Movement (M5S) and others to approve the expulsion. Berlusconi loyalists were outraged. Several of his female senators came dressed in black, at least one with an armband. At one point, they began chanting “Silvio, Silvio”.
Berlusconi, as ever, was unrepentant, telling supporters outside parliament that it was a “day of mourning for democracy”.
Before his expulsion, he did all he could to avoid it, lobbying President Giorgio Napolitano for a pardon and senators of the left and Beppe Grillo’s M5S to drop their support for his removal so they would not one day feel “ashamed in front of [their] children”. He also warned that the demonstration on the day of the vote would be “just the beginning”, demanding a re-trial, claiming vital new evidence and seven new witnesses.
Berlusconi is clearly worried about jail – a fear, along with desire to promote his rapidly expanding Milan-based business interests – that got him into politics in the first place.
As The Economist points out:
Though given a four-year sentence for the tax fraud, he did not go to prison for various reasons. He benefited from a pardon that wiped three years off sentences for offences committed before 2006. He is a first-time offender. And he is over the age of 70. But neither of the first two factors will apply if he is convicted again.
Mr Berlusconi is appealing against a seven-year sentence for paying an underage prostitute and then taking advantage of his position as prime minister at the time to cover up their relationship. He is due to go on trial again next year charged with bribing a senator to change sides in parliament.
An even greater threat for Mr Berlusconi is that he is under investigation of suspected perversion of the course of justice and could soon be made a suspect in another inquiry.
The chances of being put behind bars while under investigation or awaiting trial is apparently considerable in Italy: according to the latest comparable figures, the proportion of prisoners on remand was the highest in Europe after Turkey and some micro-states.
Berlusconi, still at the helm of Forza Italia, the party named after a football chant, which he first launched for his entrance into politics in 1994, is badly wounded and he is getting on, now aged 77. But he nevertheless remains armed and dangerous.
For he may be removed from the Senate. But he’s not removed from politics.
Grillo, like Berlusconi, is convicted of a criminal offence (manslaughter arising from a road accident) and is not in parliament. But he controls the M5S from outside. And Matteo Renzi, hotly tipped as the centre-left’s new leader, is neither senator, nor MP but mayor of Florence.
Furthermore, Berlusconi and his family still control Italy’s largest private TV network, as well as a number of top selling newspapers that are messianic in their loyalty to Il Cavaliere. You can bank on his media empire – which extends into film distribution, book publishing and advertising – pulling the stops out to ensure next year’s community service, his sentence (commuted from four years) for tax fraud, will be a propaganda coup.
Laws already exist to break up Berlusconi’s media empire, but not Left nor Right has implemented them. If the political class are serious about ensuring the man (or his family, and notably his daughter Marina) never has such a powerful influence over politics again, this has to be the number one task.
They are unlikely to, without serious pressure from the streets, because they fear the headlines. And because they, too, have been inflected by Berlusconismo (that includes Grillo, who despite his mission to clean up government and destroy Berlusconi shares with his arch enemy the desire to dictate via the mass (Internet) media).
But without a break on Berlusconi’s media power, and in its wake the creation of a more pluralistic media landscape, the rather more difficult and long process of reviving Italian democracy – with its appalling cynicism and short-termism, endemic corruption and, above all, glaring conflict between politics and money – cannot really begin.