Berlusconi 's popularity keeps him relevant in new Italy turmoil, despite fall from grace

The Associated Press

In this Dec. 4, 2013 photo former Premier Silvio Berlusconi attends the launch of a book "Sale, zucchero e caffe'" (Salt, Sugar and Coffee) by his friend, journalist Bruno Vespa, in Rome. He has been convicted of tax fraud, booted out of the Senate and banned from political office. In any other country, that would be three strikes. But in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has not lost his political legitimacy, and it will be on full display when he leads his Forza Italia party to meet with Italy’s president to discuss prospects for a new government after Premier Enrico Letta’s resignation Friday. Berlusconi’s reemergence on Italy’s political scene comes just days after a court in Naples put him on trial yet again, this time for allegedly paying a senator 3 million euros ($4 million) to switch parties to bring down a rival government. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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By COLLEEN BARRY, Associated Press

MILAN (AP) — He has been convicted of tax fraud, booted out of the Senate and banned from political office.

In other countries, that would be three strikes. But in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has not lost his political legitimacy, and it will be on full display when the former premier leads his Forza Italia party to meet with Italy's president to discuss prospects for a new government after Premier Enrico Letta's resignation Friday.

Berlusconi's reemergence on Italy's political scene comes just days after a court in Naples put him on trial yet again, this time for allegedly paying a senator 3 million euros ($4 million) to switch parties to bring down a rival government.

"Silvio Berlusconi is a survivor. He has survived many crises, political and legal. He is not going to give up," said Wolfango Piccoli, an Italian political analyst based in London. "Italians are used to seeing Berlusconi as a political leader, regardless of whether he is a felon or regardless of whether he lost his seat in the Parliament."

Berlusconi is just one of the political leaders that President Giorgio Napolitano was meeting Friday and Saturday to see if Matteo Renzi, the leader of the Democratic Party who engineered Letta's demise, has enough support in Parliament to head a new government.

If Napolitano is satisfied that Renzi does, he could tap him as early as this weekend to form a new government, which would then have to pass votes of confidence in Parliament.

The anomaly of Berlusconi, a convicted felon, negotiating a new government program with Italy's head of state is just one of several oddities that are characterizing the irregular political transition now underway in Italy. They include a government leadership change forced not by Parliament but by an internal power struggle within the Democratic Party, and the fact that Renzi, the presumed new premier, has never been elected to Parliament.

For Italians, it also is significant that Renzi would be the third straight premier who did not run as a candidate for the office.

"Italy is an awkward place," said political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte of Rome's LUISS University. "Are you surprised?"

Awkward doesn't begin to describe the upcoming meeting between Berlusconi and Italy's president.

It is institutionally awkward, given Berlusconi's conviction on a charge of defrauding the state of tax revenue. It also is personally awkward in the wake of news reports this week that Napolitano had begun informal consultations with Mario Monti to become premier months before Berlusconi was forced from office in 2011.

There has never been much sympathy between Berlusconi, the 77-year-old three-time premier and media mogul, and Napolitano, the 88-year-old president.

Napolitano is a former member of the now-defunct Italian communist party that has been the target of Berlusconi's political diatribes long since its demise. Just last summer, Berlusconi strongly hinted that his tax fraud conviction should be pardoned, but the president firmly rebuffed him.

"If it wasn't such a tragic moment, it would be amusing," constitutional law expert Lorenza Carlassare told La Repubblica regarding Berlusconi's continued role in Italian political life. "Certainly, in this way, it is embarrassing for the president's office."

But Carlassare said she didn't see a way for Napolitano to refuse a meeting with Berlusconi, given that he still commands a large segment of the electorate.

"It is such an unusual situation that I wouldn't know how to respond. The growing embarrassment also is in relation to a person who is running the third-most popular Italian party, and in terms of coalitions, the one that polls put first," Carlassare said.