Silvio Berlusconi was humiliatingly thrown out of the Italian parliament today, but in characteristic style, he came out fighting, railing against his adversaries and vowing to remain at the heart of the Italian political scene.
The billionaire was stripped of his seat in the Senate, bringing to an ignominious end a tumultuous parliamentary career that began in the early 1990s when he first burst onto the political scene, promising to bring Thatcherite reforms to Italy’s sclerotic economy and replace a discredited political class.
His ejection from the Senate was the consequence of a conviction he received in August for engaging in massive tax fraud in the purchase of film rights in the US for his Mediaset television empire, one of several court cases that he faces.
But Berlusconi refused to be bowed by his expulsion, instead appearing on a stage outside his historic palazzo home in Rome, telling hundreds of chanting supporters that he would remain the head of his Forza Italia conservative party and lead it to future elections.
He pointed out that other political figures in Italy, notably Beppe Grillo of the upstart, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, were able to lead their parties despite not being members of parliament.
“I will remain in the field. Even if you are not a parliamentarian, you can continue to fight for freedom,” he told a crowd of around 1,500 exuberant supporters.
They let off colored smoke flares, waved banners that read “I love Silvio, I love liberty,” and wore badges claiming that the vote against the media baron was “a coup d’etat.”
He lived up to his reputation for chutzpah by using the occasion to launch a new initiative – the formation of “Forza Silvio” (“Go Silvio”) political clubs across the country, “even in the tiniest villages."
He said he aimed to create 1,000 of the clubs by Dec. 8 and claimed that they would provide a platform for ordinary Italians who wanted to be “soldiers of democracy.”
Shouting “Viva Italia, Viva la Liberta,” he thanked his loyalists for their support, claiming that he had been the subject of no less than 57 trials during his political career.
“There’s no way he’s finished. He’ll remain as the head of the center-right,” says Vincenzo Mete, who got up at 4 a.m. to travel by bus from Calabria, in the far south of Italy, to Rome. “It was a nine-hour journey – a journey of freedom,” he said, as he watched Mr. Berlusconi give his impassioned address.
“It’s certainly not over. This is the start of a new adventure for him,” says Armando Coppola, a dentist from Naples, as he clutched the red and green Forza Italia flag.
While his parliamentary career may be over, politically Berlusconi remains a formidable force. He will continue to wield immense influence through his wealth, his ownership of television stations, newspapers and magazines, his business empire and the support of millions of voters, who remain loyal despite all the sex scandals, corruption cases and gaffes on the international stage.
“He’s out of parliament, but he’s not out of politics,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a politics professor at Rome's LUISS university.
“He still controls six or seven million votes – he has a hardcore constituency and they have not left him yet. As long as he holds onto those votes, you can’t say it’s the end for him politically, although it may be another step into the twilight zone.”
Berlusconi pulled his center-right Forza Italia (“Go Italy”) party out of the coalition government on Tuesday, ostensibly in opposition to the 2014 budget, which he said contained too many taxes. That brought to an end a seven-month period in which he grudgingly gave his support to the coalition led by Enrico Letta, the center-left prime minister.
Now the effective leader of the opposition, Berlusconi will be able to hound the government, which he tried to bring down last month in a confidence vote.
“Berlusconi remains very powerful,” said Fabio Masini, a cafe owner in central Rome.
“It’s like it was with Mussolini – the people who love him will continue to love him, and the people who hate him will still hate him. Berlusconi is still the most recognized politician in this country. Who do the left have? No one.”