Italy's Silvio Berlusconi's current term as Italian prime minister has recently been marked by a series of embarrassments. An affair with a prostitute is documented and spicy photographs taken at his villa on Sardinia went around the world. Relations with a 17-year-old led to divorce proceedings with his wife, Veronica Lario.
But Berlusconi has kept going despite all the scandals. He is even less bothered by the campaigns of the opposition. Nothing has caused Berlusconi to seriously doubt his own powers since voters elected him to a third term in 2008.
But Wednesday's ruling by the Italian Constitutional Court is more titillating than any sex scandal.
The supreme guardians of the judiciary have now declared that a law that grants Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while in office is unconstitutional. The decision is politically dangerous as it could let the country slip into a debilitating conflict among the various branches of government and the country's institutions.
The only certain piece of good news so far is the following: Italy is not actually the kind of regime that many had suspected it had become. The majority of Constitutional Court judges did not let themselves be intimidated, despite massive pressure and public vilification. They have overthrown one of the core projects of the Berlusconi government, namely the Lodo Alfano law which suspends any ongoing criminal proceedings against the top four state representatives.
Naturally most EU states have a law that grants immunity to those in the highest political offices, sometimes more (as in France) and sometimes less (as in Britain). An elected government should govern and not have to deal with court cases. That is normal.
But Silvio Berlusconi is not a normal European politician. German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not own, in addition to her small house in Brandenburg, the German private broadcasters RTL and Vox, the soccer team FC Bayern Munich and the Axel Springer publishing house. Similarly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has never, as far as we know, bribed a judge so that he can acquire a majority stake in the publisher Condé Nast.
The End of the Berlusconi Era?
But these descriptions do apply to Silvio Berlusconi. He was recently sentenced by a Milan civil court to pay €750 million in damages to his arch-rival Carlo de Benedetti's CIR media group. Berlusconi had wrested control of Mondadori, Italy's largest publishing house, from CIR in the early 1990s, partly by bribing a judge. The fact that CIR is one of the owners of the irreverent newspaper La Repubblica, which has been reporting on Berlusconi's private life for months, adds some more spice to the whole business.
A merciless race has now begun. Berlusconi needs to push a new immunity law, rewritten as a constitutional reform, through the two chambers of parliament once again. Observers reckon that will take around one year. Until then, the prime minister is legally just a private citizen.
It's probably the last chance for the judges in Milan to get Silvio Berlusconi into the dock. Two court cases are far enough along for that to happen. One, the Mills case, involves allegations that Berlusconi paid British lawyer David Mills to keep quiet about offshore activities. Another involves allegations of tax fraud over the purchase of TV rights by Mediaset, one of Berlusconi's companies.
Berlusconi's lawyers will do everything they can to halt these two cases until a new immunity law is in force. The next 12 months in Italian domestic politics will not be boring.
It is possible that Oct. 7, 2009 will in fact mark the oft-predicted beginning of the end of the Berlusconi era. It would be desirable for the sake of the country, but it is far from certain. The most important thing for the prime minister is not the law but his legitimacy. As long as the polls are in his favor, his pathetic struggle against the judiciary can continue.
The man has the majority of Italian voters behind him, even if nobody outside Italy can understand it. Even at the age of 73, Berlusconi still has a lot of energy to fight his way out of this mess -- possibly through new elections, the panacea of the populist.