On August 1, the Italian Supreme Court pronounced Silvio Berlusconi definitively and unappealably guilty of tax fraud, sentencing him to four years in prison, immediately commuted to one year’s house arrest thanks to various provisions aimed at easing overcrowding in the country’s jails. Members of the Senate, however, cannot be arrested, and as the painfully slow process to remove the four-time former prime minister and leader of one of the two main parties in the present right-left coalition from his Senate seat began, Berlusconi put a gun to the prime minister’s head: find a way to keep me out of jail or I will withdraw my support and bring down the government.
Since Italy has been struggling to come out of a long and deep recession that has put more than 40 percent of young people out of work and caused manufacturing to decline by 26 percent since 2007, since no other coalition seems possible in the present Parliament, and since a number of urgent economic measures aimed at meeting EU requirements for countries using the euro were in the pipeline, this was evidently a threat to send the whole country to the dogs.
The atmosphere that ensued through August and September was extraordinary. Berlusconi’s constant ultimatums, his almost daily threats to withdraw from the coalition—if the government did not abolish a property tax, if it did not prevent a scheduled increase in sales tax, indeed if it diluted any of his extravagant electoral pledges—his preparation of signed resignations from all his party’s ninety-one senators to be presented the day he lost his place in the Senate, his repeated intention of forcing a snap election that he believed he could win, hence strengthening his position to bargain his freedom against Italy’s destiny, in short his stubborn refusal to accept that he is not beyond the rule of law—all these remarkable antics, unthinkable, one would have supposed, in a Western democracy, were not met with outrage in the media.
On the contrary, serious newspapers published articles reflecting on the convenience or otherwise of an act of clemency by President Giorgio Napolitano, on the bad form of the left-wing Democratic Party in being so hard on a coalition partner as to press for his removal from the Senate, on the moral superiority of compromise over pious rectitude, and so on. Men of the stature of Mario Monti, the recent prime minister, admired internationally and detested at home, spoke of Berlusconi’s being “a special case,” with the implication that a special solution might be required.
It was rare, outside declaredly left-wing newspapers preaching to their faithful, to find an article, let alone a radio or TV news bulletin, that actually spoke of the crime for which Berlusconi has been convicted: the evasion of seven million euros in taxes and the creation of a slush fund of some …