Will Italy's sympathy for Berlusconi allow him to avoid corruption trials?
In Italy, sympathy for embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after a Dec. 13 attack could prove a useful means of dividing the opposition, rebuilding his popularity, and manipulating the judicial system.
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If the opposition chooses to attack Berlusconi over the new laws, they risk being out of step with the sympathy expressed by the Italian public. But if they capitulate, they will be accused of betraying their convictions.
“The Democratic Party have got to steer a very difficult course between respecting that sympathy, and maintaining strong opposition to the revised immunity law and the reduction of judicial powers,” says James Walston, a political science professor at the American University of Rome. “While Berlusconi was being treated in hospital, his people were working feverishly on legislation to save him from those two trials.”
The sympathy factor is also likely to quiet some of the more vociferous critics within his government, particularly faction leader and speaker of the lower house of parliament, Gianfranco Fini, who has clashed with Berlusconi on changes to the legal system, the rights of immigrants and other issues.
“This will make it harder for anyone in the centre-right to aspire to take his place anytime soon. The implication is that he is irreplaceable for the time being,” says Massimo Franco, political commentator for Italy's largest daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera.
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A parallel with attack on Mussolini?
The attack on Berlusconi also invoked startling parallels with an attack launched by a mentally unstable person on another Italian leader who gained worldwide fame: Benito Mussolini.
In 1926 a 50-year-old Irish aristocrat, Violet Gibson, shot at Il Duce while he was being driven in a car from a conference in Rome.
Gibson’s aim was poor – the bullet from her revolver grazed Mussolini’s nose, and she was almost lynched by an angry mob before being carted off by police for questioning.
Photographs of Mussolini with his nose bandaged after the attack bear a strong resemblance to the pictures of Berlusconi leaving Milan’s San Raffaele hospital this week with bandages covering half his face.
“When I saw Berlusconi with his face bandaged, I immediately thought of the photo of Mussolini, likewise with a plaster over his nose,” says Prof. Duggan.
The Italian media compared Gibson to Berlusconi’s attacker, Massimo Tartaglia, an inventor and electronics engineer who is being held in a Milan prison and faces up to five years behind bars if convicted of aggravated assault.
Mussolini was able to use the attempt on his life – which was one of four in the space of two years - to consolidate his personality cult and push Italy towards fascism and its disastrous alliance with Hitler’s Germany.
“On the back of the assassination attempts, Mussolini banned the opposition, curbed the freedom of the press, and introduced tougher policing laws," says Prof. Duggan. "It was the trigger for a whole crackdown.”