Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took his fight with political rivals and the judiciary to the streets, telling thousands of supporters in Rome he’s ready for new elections and blaming his legal battles on enemies bent on suppressing democracy.
“There’s a saying by Gandhi that has always touched me,” Berlusconi said of the Indian nationalist leader as he addressed a rally of flag-waving Italians who jammed the Piazza del Popolo today. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you -- and then you win.”
The three-time prime minister is bracing for rulings in two corruption trials, including one on charges of engaging a minor in prostitution. He may also face new charges of bribing lawmakers to help topple former Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s government in 2008. He denies wrongdoing and has accused a swath of the judiciary of trying to destroy him politically.
Berlusconi made his dispute with the country’s judges a central part of his campaign for the Feb. 24-25 elections that saw him fall short by less than half a percentage point of the popular vote. His demonstration in the capital today came as President Giorgio Napolitano struggled to cobble together a new government after the inconclusive vote last month produced a hung parliament and the possibility of another ballot.
The Democratic Party’s Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the biggest bloc in parliament, was handed a mandate yesterday to form the next government from Napolitano, who encouraged him to compromise with Berlusconi.
Berlusconi said in his speech that his opponents had failed to win election and that he’s ready for a new campaign.
“Let’s go vote,” he said. “We are absolutely ready.”
Berlusconi, who has faced dozens of criminal charges and probes since entering politics in 1994, regularly says the judiciary is more dangerous than the Sicilian Mafia. Addressing magistrates’ charges in his speech, he said, “They want to damage their enemy, Berlusconi.”
“We can’t accept that democracy and liberty are trampled by those who want to cancel the votes of a third of Italians,” he told the crowd, which the Ansa news service estimated was in the thousands.
Berlusconi’s tirades against the judges resonate with his base and some polls indicate that he has picked up support since the vote and could win an early election.
Berlusconi’s People of Liberty would win 31 percent of the vote to 28.9 percent for Bersani’s Democratic Party, or PD, and its allies if elections were held today, according to a poll by IPR Marketing released on March 21 for state-owned RAI1 television. No margin of error was given. The PD beat Berlusconi 29.6 percent to 29.2 percent in voting last month for the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house.
Berlusconi’s sparring with his prosecutors has intensified in recent weeks. Hundreds of supporters and lawmakers from his party protested outside Milan’s main court on March 11, with some entering and occupying part of the building.
Berlusconi managed to secure delays in his Milan trial on charges of prostitution and abuse of power and push back a ruling in his appeal of a conviction for tax fraud after he was hospitalized for a week with an eye disorder earlier this month. His lawyers have requested that both trials be shifted to Brescia from Milan, which would further slow a decision if the request is granted.
Prosecutors in the so-called Ruby case, named after the underage nightclub dancer at the center of the allegations, are due to present closing arguments on March 25, which could pave the way for a verdict within weeks.
Berlusconi was also convicted in a wiretapping trial in Milan earlier this month and is under investigation in Naples over allegations he bribed lawmakers. He denies all wrongdoing.
The media-billionaire-turned-politician has said he has spent hundreds of millions of euros on his legal defense. So far he has managed to avoid jail time for previous convictions that were overturned on appeal or thrown out when the statute of limitations kicked in.
Today the former premier was also facing a counterprotest from a Rome demonstration calling for Berlusconi to be declared ineligible for public office.
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