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Berlusconi awaits his judgment

By John Lloyd

FLORENCE (Reuters) - Waiting for the judgment on Silvio Berlusconi is more nerve-racking than waiting for Godot, but should be over sooner.

The Court of Cassation, Italy's Supreme Court, should this week confirm or deny the lower courts' sentence on the former prime minister of four years in prison and five years of exclusion from public life.

The court's name derives from the French "casser", to break: it can "break" the judgments of the lower courts, but none can break its own.

The case that set Berlusconi on this path was one of tax fraud by his Mediaset company. He has also been found guilty of using an underage prostitute named Karima El Mahroug, or "Ruby the Heartstealer", and of abusing his office by securing her release from prison.

The engines of his supporters, both in his party, the People of Freedom, and in the media, have been revved up to the highest pitch these past days, as the final judgment nears. They have claimed that it is absurd that a court should impose such a heavy sentence for what was a "mistake" in a tax declaration.

They have underlined again and again what has been a major trope of Berlusconi's 20 years at the top of Italian politics that the judiciary is a nest of communists waiting for the chance to destroy him. They have said, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that someone who has been as popular, and so often elected, as he has been should not be brought low by mere courts.

The present Italian government is a coalition between the two main parties, the left-of-center Democratic Party and the People of Freedom. If the latter withdraws, the government, led by the Democratic Party's Enrico Letta, falls. That is the Berlusconi camp's main card. In an interview with La Repubblica earlier this week, the leading member of the People of Freedom and a junior minister, Michaela Biancofiore, said that chaos would ensue if he were finally found guilty. "We have," she said, "decided in the (People of Freedom) group. We are all what we are thanks to Berlusconi and we're grateful to him…if Silvio isn't absolved then we will leave the government and the Parliament."

Alessandro Sallusti, editor of the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale, used his front page on Tuesday to thunder that Berlusconi was the only figure who could offer an alternative government to the left, or to a "Germany-centered Europe" and that the "sentence on the leader of the Party of Freedom concerns the whole country and directly involves the government and the Presidency.

If he is condemned then the people of the center-right will not just stand and watch", a threat of unspecified civic disobedience. In other words, find him guilty and we reduce the state to chaos. In other words, he should be above the law.

Italy is not in its febrile state solely because of Berlusconi. Its rapid post-war growth slowed from the 1980s, a decade before he entered politics and when he was one of the country's most successful entrepreneurs. Its judicial system is heavily politicized, on the right as well as left, and terribly slow. Its universities, some among the oldest in the world, struggle to reach the European average, let alone attain excellence. Above all, in the sphere of politics, the left has, in the two decades of Berlusconi's pomp, provided only sporadic good government in its periods in power and is presently undergoing a series of internal struggles that is badly weakening it.

Yet he has been, and even now remains, the largest force by far on the political ground. And if his political future is not shattered this week, and if he remains unscathed by the courts, or if, his sentence confirmed, he does as he has threatened, and goes straight to the people with an appeal for support outside of the democratic structures, then he has more damage yet to do.

For all that, one thing becomes clear. If the Court of Cassation does break the lower courts' sentences on hidden political grounds so that the present coalition, which is showing a promising ability to govern, can continue, then government will be saved, but at a greater cost.

Italy has developed a political class that, for all the talent and dedication to be found in it, has produced decades of unsatisfactory results. The most toxic outcome has been the subordination of all other institutions to the political will.

The main agent of that has been Silvio Berlusconi. If, on proper judicial grounds, the highest court sustains the earlier sentence, then a blow has been struck for the division of powers and the continuation of democratic government in the longer run. The salvation of a government is less important than the maintenance of a constitution.

(John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.)

(John Lloyd)

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