ROME - Silvio Berlusconi’s sentence to seven years in prison and a life ban from public office signals the end of his political adventures. More generally, it also marks the end of Italy’s so-called "Second Republic": the political era that began in 1992 of which the ex-prime minister has been the ubiquitous figure, just as former seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti was the symbol of the "First Republic".
Il Cavaliere ("The Knight", as Berlusconi is known in Italy) has become accustomed to unexpected falls from grace, and sudden resurrections, both in the past, and also more recently: Take, for example, his modest comeback in the national elections on February 24.
But this time it’s serious -- and he himself already knows it, or at least is starting to understand it, even though his predictable first official reaction yesterday vehemently denied it.
Twenty years ago, when Bettino Craxi, Italy's prime minister from 1983 to 1987, was hit with his first prosecution notice, his subsequent decline was far from presumed at the time. Only a couple of months later, once the Socialist party leader had already been swamped by a string of prosecution notices, did his political demise become clear. Before the arrest warrants were issued, Craxi chose the path of exile. Events followed a similar course when Andreotti was accused of having connections with the Sicilian Mafia, and many laughed off the unlikely image of him exchanging a kiss with boss of bosses Salvatore "Toto" Riina. Although he never resorted to exile, and avoided prison, Andreotti's political career -- and historical legacy -- were forever stained by the prosecutions.
It is clear that the judiciary has reserved the same fate for this ex-prime minister. The lessons from 20 years ago tell us that it is useless to pretend otherwise: this is the way it is.
The Milan judges who let the guillotine fall on Il Cavaliere will be put under discussion – indeed, they must be looked at closely. There can be no doubt that politics came into play. The signs are many and unmistakable: The judges opted for a harsher sentence than the one requested by the prosecution, and they chose to apply the more serious interpretation of extortion.
Moreover, the court imposed further sanctions by banning Berlusconi from public office for life, as well as by taking the surprising decision to ask the Public Prosecutor’s Office, a department of the judiciary which represents the interest of society, to charge the defense with perjury.
Appeals court judges recently upheld Berlusconi’s sentence of four years in prison for the Fininvest slush fund case, taking just three months to reach their decision, and soon - very soon, if the previous turnaround time is any indicator – this new verdict will follow in its footsteps.
"Demolition by judiciary"
Berlusconi now has very few cards left to play: he could choose flight, as some have begun to predict; or, the more extreme option -- although somewhat more legitimate -- of taking his case to the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation. It would be rather naïve, however, to hope that such harsh sentences, one of which has already been upheld in a court of appeal, will not influence members of the Supreme Court. Instead, they are likely to weigh down the defendant with a heavy criminal record that can but foreshadow the final judgement of any further appeals.
The end, or better, the demolition by judiciary, of the Second Republic leaves a void even greater than that which was left by the collapse of the First. It should be acknowledged that this has been on the cards for a while, not only due to Berlusconi’s misadventures but also the general wave of corruption that has hit local and regional administrations.
When the First Republic fell, the deluge provoked by the Tangentopoli bribery scandal fueled the flames of widespread indignation. The public demanded an overhaul of the political system and used the 1991 and 1993 referendums to say so. The subsequent introduction of the first-past-the-post electoral system and single-member constituencies offered citizens the opportunity to directly choose their government and radically change the Parliamentary representatives. Unfortunately, this opportunity was short-lived.
The political transition which started at that time unfortunately ground to a standstill not long after, leading to the confusion and constant disagreements in which Italy has been wallowing for almost 20 years. Today the political system, rendered weak and incapable of self-reform, has succumbed to a strong judiciary -- indeed, a judiciary made stronger by the very lack of reform that has weakened the political system so much. In practice, it is the only power to have survived the crisis of the institutions.
For those who have always idolized him, and entrusted him with their highest dreams and greatest fears – half of Italy once, now barely a third – Berlusconi’s fall from grace has erased all hope. For the moment, the center-left is not capable of offering a feasible alternative, while Beppe Grillo's insurgent movement loses steam. Multi-party governance, which should favor peace-making after the infinite era of internal feuding, may survive in a state of almost dormancy for a little while longer -- but with no hope of conforming to political norms, and without the strength required to confront the severity of the situation. And yet there will be many who cling to this type of governance like a raft in the middle of a storm.