Will he or won’t he? Since a court in Milan on Monday sentenced Silvio Berlusconi to seven years in prison on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of office, Rome-watchers have wondered whether this ruling will have consequences for the Italian government led by Enrico Letta. Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty is one of the three parties backing the cabinet, alongside the centre-left Democrats and the centrist formation, Civic Choice.
Mr Letta and Mr Berlusconi met on Tuesday to discuss the road ahead for the coalition. Top of the agenda was the government’s economic policy and, in particular, how to spare Italians of a rise in VAT, which is planned for July 1st but which Mr Berlusconi wanted to avoid at all cost. It is hard to imagine, however, that in their three-hour long meeting, Mr Letta and his predecessor did not discuss the consequences of the ruling in Milan.
The outcome of the meeting was judged positively by both sides. Mr Letta agreed to postpone the tax hike by three months – a sign that the centre-right’s strategy to use Berlusconi’s court troubles as leverage on the government is working. But the prime minister also had reasons for smiling, as Mr Berlusconi said the judges’ decision would have no consequences on the coalition.
Mr Berlusconi’s unwillingness to pull the rug from under the government, however, is also a sign that his hand is not that strong after all. The Democrats are still looking for a new leader after Pier Luigi Bersani resigned in April. Were the centre-right confident in its own strength, it would be a very good time to challenge a beheaded centre-left in a new election.
Mr Berlusconi has three doubts. The first has to do with the composition of the parliament. The present coalition arrangement gives the government a solid majority, with approximately 70 per cent of the seats in both houses. But it is not the only possible combination.
Right after the elections, Mr Bersani had sought to woo Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement into some sort of coalition arrangement. Mr Grillo, who thought his party could win more votes from being alone in opposition, refused to play ball.
Yet, reality has proven different. The Five Star Movement has done poorly in all the local elections held since last February’s national vote. Mr Grillo is finding it increasingly hard to control the party. A number of dissidents have left the parliamentary group, complaining about Mr Grillo’s despotic leadership style. If the Letta government fell, a coalition between the centre-left and the Five Stars is not entirely out of the cards.
Secondly, Mr Berlusconi knows that quitting the government would mean facing the wrath of Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s head of state. Mr Napolitano accepted an unprecedented second term on the basis that the three mainstream political parties would come behind Mr Letta.
Mr Berlusconi relies heavily on the support of the 87-year old president. While the recent trial in Milan has captured the attention of the world media for its mixture of sex, lies and politics, Italy’s judicial system is so stifled that Berlusconi has to lose two appeals before suffering any of the consequences from the ruling. A more urgent matter for the troubled tycoon is a high court judgement on a separate tax fraud case which will take place in the autumn. There are no more appeals left in this case and Mr Berlusconi believes Mr Napolitano can influence the judges, so he will probably want to avoid a confrontation until the autumn.
Thirdly, even if there was an election, Mr Berlusconi is by no means sure to win it. Il Cavaliere is a tremendous campaigner. But his party has fared badly in the recent local elections, losing control of several strongholds from Lombardy in the North to Sicily in the South. Furthermore, at 76 he would be greeted with scepticism by the growing number of Italians who want fresh faces in politics. In a snap election, the centre-left would probably field the 38-year old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who enjoys support from voters from across the political spectrum.
The critical juncture for the Letta government will therefore be the autumn, when Italy’s high court will rule on Berlusconi’s tax fraud case. Were the judges to uphold the verdict of the court of appeal, Mr Berlusconi may try to bring down the government with him. In case of new elections, a ban from holding public office would force the centre-right to field a new candidate. Rome-watchers swear Mr Berlusconi is mulling over a shock solution. Marina Berlusconi, the tycoon’s daughter and an executive of Fininvest, the family group, may be asked to step in for her dad. The Berlusconi era may not end, even if Silvio were to go.