Italy Is In Trouble

8 June 2003

Italy Is In Trouble

By Gwynne Dyer

“Italy is in danger,” said centre-left leader Francesco Rutelli early last month. “We risk becoming a regime without even realising 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 on Friday 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 Rom magistrate in 1986 to block a rival group’s bid for the state-owned food giant SME. In this case, the prosecutors have bank records showing the transfer of $434,000 from Fininvest to an account in the name of Cesare Previti, and from there to the account of the relevant magistrate in Rome. 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 70s and 80s, 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’ (Bribesville) scandals destroyed the old partnership between organised crime and Italy’s political elite, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party 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 that let Berlusconi’s Forza Italia into power. But his enthusiasm for the new order faded swiftly when the courts began looking into his own close links with deeply corrupt former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi (who fled to Tunisia to escape jail and died there). 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.

There was the law on judicial cooperation with foreign jurisdictions, making it harder for evidence from a Swiss bank account, say, to be used in an Italian court. There was the law that changed false accounting from a crime to a mere civil offence. There was the law that allowed a case to be moved from one jurisdiction to another if the high court thought that the original judges were hostile. (Berlusconi was trying to get a trial moved out of Milan and started again elsewhere — which would take so long that the statute of limitations would get him off the hook.)

And when none of these laws looked likely to save him from conviction in the trial over the 1986 SME bribe, Berlusconi brought in fast-track legislation to grant immunity from prosecution to senior political figures. His majority in the upper house of parliament has already passed it, his majority in the lower house will pass it on 21 June, and he will be free of criminal proceedings in time to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union in July (though his co-accused, including the ubiquitous Cesare Previti, will almost certainly all go down to long prison sentences).

Crooked politicians often get away with their crimes: US President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his predecessor Boris Yeltsin blanket immunity from prosecution. France’s President Jacques Chirac has been getting away with it for decades, though only because his fellow-countrymen don’t seem to care about the vast sums of public money that have slipped into his pockets over the years. But none of them have perverted the law as shamelessly as Berlusconi has done.

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’, Italy’s biggest and most respected newspaper, is on the right politically, but under de Bortoli it was critical of Berlusconi. The last straw was a column on 15 May 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 de Bortoli was gone, and a Berlusconi-friendly columnist called Stefano Folli was the new editor of ‘Corriere’. Berlusconi already owns Italy’s three biggest private television stations, and as prime minister controls RAI’s three publicly-owned ones as well. So is Berlusconi’s government changing from an administration to a ‘regime’? In strict technical terms, no — but Berlusconi’s only guarantee of avoiding a jail term now is to stay in power.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“There was…hook”; and”Crooked…done”)