ROME - Countless attempts have been made to separate Silvio Berlusconi’s fate from that of the Italian government and economy. Above all, how can one man's personal destiny be disentangled from the properly functioning relationships between the powers of the State.
In the end, it seems, all attempts at such a separation have been in vain.
Last week the nation's high court announced that Berlusconi’s latest judicial appeal would be fast-tracked to avoid the sentence lapsing during the summer break because of the statute of limitations. This provoked outcry and confusion in Parliament, but the political significance of this response was clear to see: it highlighted the fact that the elementary maxims on which democracy is based are fast becoming distorted.
This distortion started years ago, and has spread like a plague, infecting politicians and public opinion alike. It could have serious consequences for the future of our country.
When the appeal date was announced, the PDL – Berlusconi’s political party - requested that Parliament be suspended for three days in protest. There is no technical or legal justification for this move. Furthermore it represents a serious threat to the neutrality with which judges must make decisions about a trial, and establishes an unacceptable link between the destiny of one person and the most important state institution of all: the one which represents popular sovereignty.
Reducing the suspension of Parliament to just one afternoon – a proposal accepted by the the PDL's left-center partner in the current coalition government – doesn’t change this in the slightest. Agreeing to suspend Parliament endangers a fundamental principle upon which the balance of power between institutions is based; the number of hours or days involved doesn’t make a difference, nor does the argument that compromises are needed to save the current government.
The Supreme Court must quite rightly observe the 1969 law which states that trials must not be delayed if they are at risk of the case being shelved by the statute of limitations – not just when Berlusconi is the defendant, but in all cases. However, it is paradoxical and a sign of how weak the presumption of innocence is that public attention has focused on, not the rapid verdict, but on the alternative solution that would allow one of Berlusconi’s charges to lapse without proving whether or not he was guilty. It is also understandable that Berlusconi and his party doubt the impartiality of the Milan court, but similar suspicions about the Supreme Court are absolutely unfounded.
Conscience of a nation
The Supreme Court has demonstrated on many occasions that it is capable of coming to verdicts that are quite significantly different from those of the Milan magistrates. If all of the Italian judiciary were involved in a mythical and improbable plot against the leader of the main center-right party, it would be impossible to understand how Berlusconi, as post-War Italy's longest reigning prime minister, could have accepted one of the highest positions in a State that was missing one of the fundamental principles necessary to be considered a democracy.
Neither the PDL’s infighting between hawks and doves, nor the disputes among the current leadership of the left-center Democratic party, or even the consequences of the precarious multi-party agreement upon which Enrico Letta’s government is based can distort to such an extent the basic rules of our Republic.
Respecting these rules is no hypocritical formality, but an essential requirement to prevent political discord from igniting into civil conflict. Tiny doses of chloroform have been introduced into political life in recent years to dull democratic sensitivities, and this is starting to compromise the nation’s conscience in a very alarming way.
On July 30, Berlusconi’s sentence risks unveiling, in a dramatic final act, the damage that too much complacency, compromise and underestimation have done to Italian society.
For the past 20 years, instead of being reformed to improve its efficiency and remove uncertainties caused by vaguely-written laws, the Italian judiciary has been warped by the saga of Berlusconi’s various trials -- and the consequences of the laws introduced in Parliament solely as they relate to the fate of the man himself.
Now the risk is that the nation's Supreme Court is being entrusted with, not just the sentencing of a political leader, but also the fate of a government that is working hard to lift Italy out of the depths of an economic crisis and avoid an open political showdown.