The Economist explains
Why Silvio Berlusconi still matters
Jan 26th 2014, 23:50 by J.H. | ROME
EXACTLY 20 years ago, on January 26th 1994, Silvio Berlusconi entered Italian politics. He went on to serve as prime minister three times, most recently between 2008 and 2011, but last year he was convicted of tax fraud and expelled from parliament, seemingly bringing his political career to an end. Yet on January 18th he returned in style to Italy’s political arena when the leader of its biggest party, Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party (PD), cut him in on a deal to change the electoral law and reform the constitution. How can Mr Berlusconi continue to play a central role in Italian politics?
On August 1st 2013 the supreme court upheld his conviction for tax fraud and a jail sentence of four years. The judges also told a lower court to reconsider the length of time Mr Berlusconi should be banned from public office (it reduced the period from five years to two). Three of the four years of the former prime minister’s jail sentence were meanwhile wiped out by a pardon which had been granted by the centre-left government in 2006. And Mr Berlusconi will not serve the remaining 12 months behind bars because of a law introduced by his government in 2005, which gave sentencing tribunals the power (though not the obligation) to impose house arrest or community service on anyone over the age of 70 when convicted. Mr Berlusconi, who is 77, has asked to do community service. But the wheels of Italian justice grind slowly. The tribunal that will decide his fate will not sit until April 10th.
In the meantime, Mr Berlusconi is a free man. He is banned from holding public office and, by the terms of the law under which he was expelled from the Senate, he is also prevented from running for parliament. But that does not stop him leading his party, Forza Italia. Indeed, Italy has a long history of party leaders exerting decisive influence on the country while remaining outside government, and even parliament: neither Mr Renzi nor the leader of Italy’s second-biggest party, Beppe Grillo, sit in the legislature. The reason Mr Renzi involved Mr Berlusconi in his plan for political and constitutional reform is that he needs Forza Italia’s votes. The PD has an absolute majority in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, but not in the Senate. In theory, the proposed electoral law could be passed with the help of the PD’s allies in government, the New Centre Right (NCD). But the law Mr Renzi seeks is one that aims to reduce the influence of small parties like the NCD and increase the power of bigger ones like the PD and Forza Italia. To get his constitutional reform passed without a referendum, Mr Renzi needs a two-thirds majority. And without Mr Berlusconi’s party he cannot get one.
So it looks as though the eternally resilient media tycoon could remain a pivotal figure for a year or more. It is expected that the tribunal that convenes in April will agree to his doing community service, which would leave him time for politics. But Mr Berlusconi has also been convicted of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and coercing the police into helping him hush up their relationship. A lower court gave him seven years. If that sentence is upheld, he could well face house arrest and a ban on communicating with the members of his party. Only then would his influence over Italian politics come to an end.