The Berlusconi Effect

Italy's former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, may not be banned from public office.

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In this file photo taken Dec. 29, 2012 Silvio Berlusconi smiles as he arrives at Milan's central train station, Italy. Italy’s top court confirmed Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 Berlusconi tax fraud conviction, and ordered the review of a political ban contained in the sentence that was appealed by the Italian media Mogul.

Last weekend former Italian prime minister, media tycoon and center right politician Silvio Berlusconi had his day in court yet again. This time he was in the Italian Supreme Court (new ground even for him). His journey to the Supreme Court started a long time ago but the path was cemented with his conviction of tax fraud in the lower court of appeals in Milan in late spring 2013. The Milan court ruling sentenced the former prime minister to serve four years in jail for tax fraud and banned him from public office for five years.

The Supreme Court while upholding the Berlusconi's prison term asked the Milan Appeals Court to revisit the length of ban from public office. In all likelihood, the 76-year-old Berlusconi will not serve any actual time in jail because of a 2006 amnesty. This removes three years from the four year term. For the remaining one year jail time the most likely outcome is that Berlusconi will be put under house arrest as most Italians who are first time offenders with a year or less to serve are normally not jailed. Even the community service he may have to perform instead of the one year jail time is probably not going to happen since the Italians rarely impose community service on anyone over 70 years old. Thus it looks like Berlusconi is free again despite a Supreme Court ruling against him.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

The second part of the ruling of the Supreme Court, asking the lower court in Milan to revisit (i.e. reduce) the length of the public office ban to one to three years for Mr. Berlusconi allows him for the moment to continue as a senator in the upper house of parliament and remain the leader of his People of Freedom, or PdL, party. Berlusconi might easily escape this ban as well because the court decision will require a Senate vote where he and his followers all get to vote.

Most importantly this vote puts the current Italian government under untenable pressure. The current leftist Prime Minister Enrico Letta overseas a government comprised of a grand left-right coalition. Berlusconi's party is essential to keep the government united. Members of Letta's Democratic Party in the Senate are going to have an extremely difficult decision on how to vote on the court's ruling of a ban on Belusconi's ability to hold public office. If they vote for the ban they might risk losing their current government leadership. The question is whether Letta's supporters can stomach voting against the ban, defy the courts and support a former prime minister they have scorned. The Italian drama continues.

Scheherazade Rehman is a professor of international finance/business and international affairs at the George Washington University. You can visit her homepage here and follow her on Twitter @Prof_Rehman.

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