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.

Luca Bruno/AP
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waves from his car as he arrives at his home in Arcore, Italy, Thursday.

After being sued for divorce by his wife, accused of corruption in two long-standing trials, and alleged to have slept with a prostitute at his palazzo in Rome, it seemed as though 2009 couldn't get any worse for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But just when things appeared to have reached a nadir for the charismatic, yet controversial leader, he was dealt another crushing blow – literally.
But far from being a setback, the attack he sustained last Sunday when a man with a history of mental illness smashed a cheap but hefty souvenir model of Milan’s famous cathedral into his face, could turn out to be an early Christmas gift.

Sympathy for Berlusconi in the wake to the assault, which left him with a broken nose and two cracked teeth, is expected to prove a useful means of dividing the opposition, rebuilding his popularity, and manipulating the judicial system in such a way as to avoid two trials in which he is accused of corruption, false accounting, and other corporate abuses. Many political analysts also say that the attack could have a chilling effect on free speech, and trigger a return to hyper-bitter politics in a country still marked by a battle between the Left and Right that dates back to World War II.

“I think the effect will be as much psychological as practical," says Prof. Christopher Duggan, a Mussolini biographer and the head of modern Italian history at Britain’s Reading University. "It is already very difficult for newspapers to be openly critical of the government because journalists fear for their careers, and sympathy for Berlusconi will make it even more difficult for his opponents to speak out.”

A return to immunity for Berluconi?

Shortly after being re-elected prime minister last year, Mr Berlusconi’s center-right party pushed a law through parliament, where they enjoy a majority in both chambers, which gave him immunity from prosecution in office.

But in a heavy blow, Italy’s highest court slapped it down in October this year, ruling that it was unconstitutional and went against the principle that all citizens should be equal before the law.

Now Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party wants to introduce a revised law which would reinstate his immunity, with a bill expected to be presented to parliament this week.

The government also wants to introduce a new law which would limit the duration of trials to six years. According to Italy’s magistrates’ association, it could put an end to up to 100,000 trials which are slowly making their way through the country’s ponderous judicial system.

Either of the measures would enable Berlusconi to wriggle out of two corruption trials which were reactivated after the immunity law was quashed.

Both laws now stand a better chance of success than before the attack because widespread sympathy for Berlusconi has put the opposition, center-left Democratic Party, and opponents of the law within his own bloc, in an extremely difficult position.

The sympathy factor

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.

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.

The daughter of a baron, she was later deported to Britain and spent the rest of her life in a mental asylum in Northampton, in central England.

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.”

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