“Italy is in danger,” said centre-left leader Francesco Rutelli early last month. “We risk becoming a regime without even realizing it.” Since then, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s close political ally and personal lawyer, Cesare Previti, has been convicted of bribery on Berlusconi’s behalf and sentenced to 11 years in prison; the editor of Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, has been fired for running critical articles about Berlusconi; and in the first week of June, the Italian parliament hastily passed a bill that grants Berlusconi immunity from criminal prosecution.
The legislation is meant to get Berlusconi out of another corruption trial over a bribe from his holding company, Fininvest, to a Rome magistrate in 1986 to block a rival group’s bid for the state-owned food giant SME. The prosecutors have bank records showing the transfer of $ 434,000 from Fininvest to an account in the name of Previti, and from there to the account of the Rome magistrate. Does this cause the prime minister any embarrassment' Not at all. He has ways to stay out of jail.
Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy, with a fortune of over $ 10 billion, but it won’t help much if he ends up behind bars. That may not be the main reason he entered politics, but it must be a major reason that he stays in it.
Back in the Seventies and Eighties, when Berlusconi made his fortune in real estate and then in the media, it was impossible to do business in Italy without paying bribes. Then the Tangentopoli scandals destroyed the partnership between organized crime and Italy’s political elite, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia swept into power in 1994 as an admirer of the “mani pulite” (clean hands) magistrates who put dozens of leading politicians, businessmen and mafia figures in jail for kickbacks, embezzlement and even murder.
The Tangentopoli trials destroyed the long-ruling Christian Democratic Party and its Socialist rival, creating the opening for Berlusconi. But his enthusiasm for the new order faded when the courts began looking into his own close links with the deeply corrupt former prime minister, Bettino Craxi. Suddenly, Berlusconi declared that “clean hands was only a colossal conquest commissioned by the Communists and Democrats of the Left.”
An avalanche of bribery cases involving Berlusconi and his business associates brought his first government down in less than a year in 1994. Expensive lawyers managed to drag out many of the cases against him until the statute of limitations ran out, but a number were still live when Forza Italia and its “post-fascist” coalition partners became the government again in 2001. Since then, one of the government’s main activities has been passing laws to keep Berlusconi out of jail.
And when none of these laws looked likely to save him from conviction in the 1986 SME bribe, Berlusconi brought in fast-track legislation to grant legal immunity to senior political figures. The upper house of parliament has already passed it, the lower house will pass it on June 21, and he will be free in time to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union in July.
The most striking thing about Berlusconi is how brazenly he now deploys his power, as in the dismissal of the editor of Corriere della Sera, Feruccio de Bortoli, in late May. Corriere is on the right politically, but under de Bortoli it was critical of Berlusconi. The last straw was a column on May 15 in which Giovanni Sartori quoted Berlusconi saying “It will not be permitted for anyone who has been a communist to come to power.” Sartori retorted: “Mussolini used to say the same words. (Berlusconi) has no reason to be afraid, but I have.”
In two weeks a Berlusconi-friendly columnist called Stefano Folli was the new editor. Berlusconi already owns Italy’s three biggest private television stations, and as prime minister controls RAI’s three publicly-owned ones. So is Berlusconi’s government changing into a “regime”' In technical terms, no — but Berlusconi’s only guarantee of avoiding a jail term now is to stay in power.