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A combination of file photographs shows Karima El Mahroug of Morocco posing during a photocall at the Karma disco in Milan in 2010 and Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi waving as he arrives for a meeting of the European People's Party in Brussels. (REUTERS)
A combination of file photographs shows Karima El Mahroug of Morocco posing during a photocall at the Karma disco in Milan in 2010 and Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi waving as he arrives for a meeting of the European People's Party in Brussels. (REUTERS)

Berlusconi conviction spells trouble for Italy’s fragile government Add to ...

While many Italians were delighted that Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced Monday to seven years in prison for paying for sex with an underage woman, many more did not really care. They have seen this film dozens of times before.

Mr. Berlusconi, who was Italian prime minister three times before he was effectively ousted in 2011 at the height of the debt crisis, has always been one step ahead of the law. He has been endlessly prosecuted and, only last month, an appeals court upheld his four-year prison sentence for a tax-fraud scheme. In all of these cases, he pleads innocence, blames his woes on left-wing conspiracies and overzealous prosecutors, and unleashes his armies of lawyers to set the appeals machine in motion.

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So far, it has worked. Mr. Berlusconi has never seen the inside of a prison cell and probably never will. Appeals can take years and, in Italy, old men tend not to spend their last years behind bars. He is 76 and looks his age.

Still, Monday’s verdict could have serious political repercussions at a time when Italy, which is in deep recession amid soaring unemployment, is desperate for a stable government that can keep economic reforms alive. He remains the head of the People of Freedom party (PdL), which supports the coalition government of Enrico Letta, who became prime minister in April after February’s inconclusive election. If Mr. Berlusconi withdraws his support for the government, it would come crashing down.

Mr. Berlusconi was found guilty of paying for sex with a teenage Moroccan nightclub dancer, the alleged prostitute Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby Rubacuori – Ruby the Heartstealer. She was 17 at the time, in 2010. In Italy, it’s illegal to pay someone who is under 18 for sex.

Mr. Berlusconi, who has admitted handing Ruby envelopes stuffed with €500 notes, but denied having sex with her, was also banned from holding public office. His lawyers have announced their intention to appeal. He is allowed two appeals, each of which could take years.

While Mr. Berlusconi has not even hinted that he might withdraw his support for the government because of the ruling and the embarrassment it has caused him, it cannot be ruled out. The February election was the direct result of his decision, taken late last autumn, to withdraw his support for the technical government of Mario Monti. At the time, Mr. Berlusconi was upset that the Monti government was not protecting him from prosecutions that he considered frivolous.

The tax-fraud case is adding to Mr. Berlusconi’s problems and is the more serious of the two convictions against him. If the tax-fraud ruling is upheld, there is little doubt that some of the PdL parliamentarians would resign in protest.

In spite of his convictions, Mr. Berlusconi remains popular and winning a fourth term as prime minister is not out of the question in a country with shifting political allegiances. In the February election, Mr. Berlusconi was supposed to get wiped out. In fact, the opposite happened and his party now plays a key role in Mr. Letta’s government.

The European Commission and the euro zone countries will dread any more political instability in Italy, the euro zone’s third-largest economy. Italy has the deepest recession in the Western world, after Greece. Manufacturing is in freefall and unemployment is rising solidly into double digits.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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