Silvio Berlusconi has experienced numerous moments of triumph and tragedy in the 15 years he has dominated Italian politics. But the blow he has just received from Italy’s Constitutional Court is the most serious setback he has encountered. Throughout this year, Mr Berlusconi has been embroiled in scandals over prostitutes and showgirls. However, the Constitutional Court has struck him where it truly hurts. Its judges have annulled a law passed in 2004 that gave Mr Berlusconi immunity from prosecution. The prime minister may now have to stand trial in a series of cases where he is alleged to have committed corruption, tax evasion and bribery.
Mr Berlusconi has responded by again accusing Italy’s judiciary of mounting a leftist-motivated witchhunt against him. It is certainly true that few Italian institutions today are politically independent. But the Constitutional Court has come to the right judgment. The head of government in a democracy cannot be above the law. Any other verdict would have been a further deformation of Italy’s dysfunctional political system.
Mr Berlusconi is clearly weakened. He will have to spend more time defending himself in courtrooms, reducing his time for the business of government. Italy’s battered international image will suffer further. But this is far from being a deadly blow to the 73-year-old premier. Italy’s judicial system is weak and likely to take its time in delivering a definitive verdict in the cases involving the prime minister. Besides, Mr Berlusconi is politically strong. He has a majority in parliament. His centre-left rivals are in crisis. His coalition partners refuse to challenge him.
We can do little more than contemplate the sorry state of Italian politics. In the early 1990s, Italy’s corrupt postwar political system collapsed. Mr Berlusconi entered politics to give himself a platform to defend himself from corruption charges. It was tragic for Italy and for Europe that he did so.
Mr Berlusconi has won two general elections and can claim to have a mandate from Italians who have long known the charges against him. But Italy has failed to mature politically thanks to his dominance of the scene. It has been mired in disputes between politicians and judges over Mr Berlusconi’s fate. It has failed to establish a clear separation of government and media powers. Many Italians may go on backing him. But his centre-right allies ought to be contemplating ditching him.
Italy would certainly be better off without him.
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