Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Berlusconi must go down for Italy's sake

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Although Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted by Italy's highest court, he is still trying to escape justice. His People of Freedom, or PdL, movement is part of a rickety coalition government. Though Berlusconi publicly backs the coalition, his people are putting it about that if he gets special treatment, it will survive, and that if he goes down, it will fall.

The tactic is typical of someone who is unfit to be in politics -- let alone to run Italy. But that is not the only reason Berlusconi should now feel the full weight of the law, including an immediate ban from holding office. Italians have lost faith in politics. The first step in restoring it is to put justice before expediency for once.

The conviction was for tax evasion. Berlusconi's company, Mediaset, escaped taxes by falsely reporting how much it had paid for film rights. An amnesty from 2006 cut his sentence of four years in prison to one that, because of his age (he is 76), he can serve under house arrest or doing work in the community. He is automatically banned from running for office for six years, but the Senate must determine whether he should be kicked out of office immediately. The president, Giorgio Napolitano, has wisely beaten back talk of a pardon. But Berlusconi's supporters, who believe his conviction is the result of persecution by a left-leaning judiciary, want him to keep his Senate seat. So do some Italians who have lost respect for him but fear the consequences of further political instability.

Things are at last looking up for Italy. Its moribund economy is showing signs of improvement. In its first 100 days, the coalition government, with Enrico Letta of the Democratic party as prime minister, has made a decent start. Letta still has plenty to do. Without its founder, the PdL would probably collapse and, long before that, the government would fall. Even if Berlusconi is guilty, the argument goes, his conviction and the years he has spent being dragged through the courts are humiliation enough. For the sake of Italians and the entire eurozone, now is not the moment to sacrifice Letta's government.

But the reason Berlusconi has spent years in the courts is he has faced a truckload of charges and strung each one out like a piece of vermicelli. He has been tried more than a dozen times. Six cases dragged on so long they exceeded the statute of limitations. Two lapsed because he himself changed the law to legalize his alleged offences. His latest conviction is for paying for sex with a 17-year-old. For this, he was sentenced to seven years in jail and a lifelong ban from office. He is appealing.

It is also true both the government and the economy are fragile. Given time, Letta could doubtless get more done. But Italy's problems are deep-seated. Its economy is sclerotic, its electoral law is rotten and, yes, its courts are inefficient (had they worked faster, Berlusconi might have been convicted years ago). A coalition with a gun to its head cannot hope to fix all that.

Reform can come about only under a sustained and resolute government that commands a popular mandate. Yet revulsion at politics led a quarter of the electorate to vote in February for the Five Star Movement, led by a comedian. Berlusconi can play no part in rehabilitating politics. As prime minister, he repeatedly put his own interests before the country's. He exacerbated popular cynicism about public life. If Italian politics is to earn the legitimacy it needs, Berlusconi's departure is as necessary as it is overdue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2013 A9

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