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Berlusconi's winning streak runs out as Italy rules its PM is no longer above the law

For most of his political career Silvio Berlusconi has faced allegations and charges of tax fraud, corruption, illegally financing political parties, false accounting and bribery. The Italian Prime Minister has used cunning, stalling and immunity laws to dodge them all and go on to win three elections.

His winning streak appeared to have run out yesterday, when Italy's top court ruled that a law passed by parliament granting the Prime Minister immunity from prosecution was unconstitutional. The law, under Mr. Berlusconi's tireless urging, was passed last year, shortly after his election victory, by a simple majority of parliament.

The legal blow to Mr. Belusconi, 73, will almost certainly re-open two corruption trials against him, ending his aura of untouchability and perhaps his 15-year political career.

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It comes as a lurid string of sex scandals, ranging from wild parties at his Sardinian villa to accusations that he used the services of prostitutes, continue to make headlines in Italy and across Europe.

Last spring his wife, Veronica Lario, accused her husband of "frequenting minors," a reference to his friendship with an aspiring teenage underwear model, and demanded a divorce.

Mr. Berlusconi's centre-right government went on the attack immediately after the ruling was made public.

"This is a politically motivated sentence, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the government and the majority will continue to govern, as they have done since April, 2008, in the way that Italians requested with their votes," said his spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti.

The 15 judges of Italy's constitutional court ruled 9 to 6 that the immunity law, which shields the Prime Minister and the three other top state officials from prosecution, while they are in office, breaches constitution articles making all citizens equal before the law.

Mr. Berlusconi's small army of lawyers used extraordinary arguments to try to keep the immunity law intact. One of them told the court that "He is no longer 'First among equals,' but ought to be considered 'First above equals.' "

While some political analysts thought that the ruling will, at best, turn the billionaire media and sports mogul in to a lame-duck leader and, at worst, end his career, others thought his amazing survival instincts, strangely enduring popularity and Italy's deeply flawed legal system will allow him to escape once again.

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"If one thing is true of the last 15 years, it's that the justice system has never derailed Berlusconi," said Alexander Stille, the Columbia University professor who wrote The Sack of Rome, a book about Mr. Berlusconi's power grab.

"There is always a face-saving compromise or way out, like the statutes of limitations. The idea that Berlusconi will be convicted in one of these cases, and issued a serious sentence, I find hard to believe."

Mr. Stille has said Mr. Berlusconi, who controls Italy's top three commercial TV channels and, through his role as Prime Minister, the Italian state broadcaster RAI, has more power than any leader in Western Europe. He considers Mr. Berlusconi's power on par with that of Russia's Vladimir Putin or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Italy's immunity law came into effect when Mr. Belusconi was a co-defendant in the trial of David Mills, his former British tax lawyer and the estranged husband of British MP Tessa Jowell. Mr. Mills was handed a 4 1/2-year prison sentence for accepting a $600,000 (U.S.) bribe in exchange for giving false testimony in two cases in which Mr. Berlusconi was a defendant in the 1990s. Mr. Mills is appealing the prison sentence.

The immunity law allowed the Prime Minister to be removed from the proceedings, even though the court had ruled he had given the bribe. This is one of the two cases against him that probably will be reopened, though the proceedings could be dropped because of the statute of limitations.

The second case that will probably resume is the Milan trial in which Mr. Berlusconi was charged with tax evasion. It was suspended last year after parliament approved the immunity law.

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On Monday, Mr. Berlusconi said he intended to stay in office until his government's full term expires in 2013. At the time he was responding to a civil case in Milan, which said he was "co-responsible" for bribing a judge in 1991 during the takeover battle for Italy's biggest publishing house, Mondadori. The bribe allegedly ensured that Mondadori went to Mr. Berlusconi's media group, Fininvest.

Mr. Stille predicts chaos as Mr. Berlusconi attempts to salvage what's left of his career. "When Berlusconi feels vulnerable, he is capable of anything," he said. "I predict a time of great political turbulence."

His chances of survival would diminish considerably if the endless scandals and renewed trials jeopardize his party's close relationship with coalition partner Lega Nord (Northern League). Mr. Berlusconi is already losing support among Roman Catholics, who are considering a new, Church-backed conservative party to challenge the Prime Minister's ruling People of Liberty Party.

Last month a newspaper poll showed that Mr. Berlusconi's support among practising Catholics had fallen by 5 percentage points, to 50 per cent, since the spring.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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