Silvio Berlusconi loses immunity. Can Italy's government survive?

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was stripped of his immunity from prosecution by the country's highest court Wednesday. His government may not last long without it.

By , Staff writer

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    Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi speaks to reporters Wednesday on his way out of the Palazzo Grazioli residence in Rome, after a top Italian court overturned a law granting him immunity from prosecution.
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Silvio Berlusconi, the mercurial Italian prime minister and media magnate, has just had his get out of jail free card taken from him by the country's highest court. The immunity law he helped pass last year to shield himself from prosecution was annulled by Italy's constitutional court.

Mr. Berlusconi was all smiles on Wednesday, meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (also embattled at home, though for very different reasons) and behaving as if it were business as usual. Berlusconi's spokesman immediately dismissed the ruling as "politically motivated," and the prime minister has vowed to soldier on. His opponents on the Italian left, not surprisingly, called on him to resign.

The argument why he should is that a number of cases against him -- one, a charge that he bribed a lawyer to provide false testimony to shield himself from a corruption prosecution in the 1990s -- will now be allowed to go forward. But Berlusconi, who has also been accused of consorting with prostitutes at his private home in Rome, may have an equally good case for staying on: the Italian electorate, so far at least, isn't particularly outraged.

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Despite a corruption conviction for a former associate, sex scandals, allegations in the Italian press that he has done business with the mafia, and a ruling last weekend that his Fininvest company must pay $1 billion in damages to a rival company after it was found that Berlusconi and others had bribed a judge to help Fininvest prevail in a takeover battle, the former cruise-ship singer has been made of Teflon at the polls -- with his approval rating hovering at around 50 percent.

Though that's down from a high in the mid-60s, more telling has been public support for his center right coalition. About 48 percent of Italians support his governing coalition. Only about 35 percent of Italians say they'd prefer a center-left government, the most likely option.

Nevertheless, the charges against him are serious, and some Italian political analysts say it's difficult to see how his government will survive. Agence France-Presse reports that retired anticorruption judge Antonio di Pietro, who now heads the Italy of Values party, called on Berlusconi to "stop making laws for his personal use and step down."

Though Berlusconi appears temperamentally unlikely to resign, in the coming days and weeks, the fate of his government will be in the hands of his coalition partners. Italy watchers are now focusing on Gianfranco Fini, a conservative in the prime minister's coalition and leader of the People of Liberty Party, as a possible successor. If Mr. Fini begins to make moves against Berlusconi, the prime minister's government will probably not be long for this world.

The most explosive charge against Berlusconi involves David Mills, a lawyer who worked for Berlusconi in the early 1990s. Mr. Mills, a British citizen, was convicted in February of accepting a $600,000 bribe from the Italian prime minister to lie on the witness stand to protect his former client. Mr. Mills is appealing his conviction and four year sentence. Prosecutors from his trial led the charge at the Constitutional Court to strip Berlusconi of his immunity, arguing that no man should be above the law. Berlusconi has said the law is necessary to shield him from frivolous prosecutions that would distract him from governing.

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Berlusconi has also been waging war for control of Italy's press.

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