It wasn’t the first time that journalists sat down to write Silvio Berlusconi’s political obituary, and Italy’s former prime minister was making it clear he’d do his best to ensure it wouldn’t be the last. Even as the Italian senate prepared to expel him, the media mogul was promising a crowd of supporters in front of his house in central Rome that he was far from through with politics. “We’re here on a bitter day, a day of mourning for democracy,” he said. “Now, none of us can be sure of our rights, of our liberty, and so we mustn’t give up the fight.”
Things have never looked so grim for Berlusconi. Sentenced in August to a year of community service for tax fraud, he also faces a 6-year ban from public office. His party suffered a schism last month when his onetime lieutenant refused to join his attempt to bring down the government. Other charges, including a conviction under appeal for paying for sex with a minor and abusing his office to cover it up, are looming ever closer. The loss of his senate seat strips Berlusconi of his parliamentary immunity, opening the possibility that a judge could put him under precautionary arrest.
Yet the door is far from closed on Berlusconi’s 20-year career in politics. In spite of his political setback, most polls put his Forza Italia party and its likely allies ahead of Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s center-left coalition, with over 30 percent of the vote. And while he will not be able to stand for election or take public office, there’s nothing stopping him from leading his party from the outside. “In a democracy, votes matter,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “As long as Berlusconi has six or seven million votes—and this is the hard core of his support—he’ll have leverage, he can be a player.”
Many of his supporters had come in from far-flung towns, on buses paid for by Berlusconi or his party. “First of all he makes us pay fewer taxes,” said Mariella Moricone, 47, who left the town of Lucca in Tuscany at 5 a.m. with a group of 50 people. “He allows money to circulate. With Berlusconi there were fewer taxes than there are now.” At the front of the crowd, Simone Furlan, the founder of a group that calls itself Silvio’s Army, said he had 300 volunteers ready to get arrested if the judges swoop in on Berlusconi. “He has to prevent his voters from feeling discouraged by what’s going on, demoralized, demobilized,” says D’Alimonte. “In order to lose this risk, he has to appear aggressive.”
Indeed, in recent days Berlusconi has done everything he could to discredit the proceedings against him, referring to them as a “coup d’etat,” a subversion of the will of those who voted for him in February. He has appealed his ban to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the law under which he was expelled from the senate was being applied retroactively. On Monday, just two days before the senate vote, he announced he had new evidence that would absolve him and called for the case to be reopened.
“I am absolutely sure that the end of this process, my sentence will be reversed with my full acquittal,” Berlusconi told the crowd of supporters. “Let’s not despair if the leader of the center-right, [Berlusconi], is no longer senator. Even as a non-parliamentarian, one can continue to fight for our freedom.”