Berlusconi Has Most to Lose From Early Vote, Ex-Court Chief Says

Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time Italian prime minister whose party has threatened to bring down the government if he’s expelled from the Senate, may have the most to lose from an early vote, the former head of the country’s supreme court says.

With a vote this year, “Berlusconi’s bullets would be blunted,” Cesare Mirabelli, a former president of Italy’s Constitutional Court, said in a phone interview. Early elections would probably lead to his immediate ineligibility, while keeping a debate on his Senate expulsion going could result in more favorable legislation, he said.

Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party has threatened to bring down Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government if a key property tax isn’t abolished today, a prelude to a dispute on whether to expel the 76-year-old billionaire media magnate from the Senate, following his final tax-fraud conviction on Aug. 1. The Senate committee for immunity and elections will begin the debate on Berlusconi’s case on Sept. 9.

Letta’s Democratic Party, the biggest force in the ruling coalition, has said Berlusconi’s expulsion is required by an anti-corruption law passed in December 2012. Berlusconi’s PDL claims the law, which bars people sentenced to more than two years in prison from running in elections, is unconstitutional and shouldn’t be applied to Berlusconi, whose conviction stems from tax fraud in 2002 and 2003. It may take weeks before a final vote by the entire house.

Constitutional Court

The PDL is pressuring parliament to request a Constitutional Court opinion on the matter, which would freeze the effects of the law. It would then take the Constitutional Court “up to six months” to decide whether to rule on the parliamentary query or reject it all together, Mirabelli said. The Parliament could even agree on amending the corruption law to exclude its retro-activity, which “could be done in 15 days,” he added.

“That would save Berlusconi from losing his Senate seat, but ultimately the public-office ban, to be determined by the appeals court, would kick in,” Mirabelli said. Italy’s top court on Aug. 1 upheld Berlusconi’s conviction and asked the appeals court to review a five-year public office ban imposed by the original ruling. The appeals court could rule as early as November, while Berlusconi would have the right to a last appeal to the highest court, which would take “another three or four months,” Mirabelli said.

House Arrest

Berlusconi, whose four-year prison sentence was reduced to one year due to laws against prison overcrowding, is unlikely to go to jail due to his age and the short sentence. Ultimately, his penalty may involve house arrest or community service. He has denied any wrongdoing and has said judges were politically motivated.

“Pulling the plug on Letta’s government would also sanction the end” of talks with the PD and other political forces on granting Berlusconi some political leeway after his conviction, said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence in London in a note yesterday.

The coalition of rival parties could come to a political agreement on measures to improve the justice system followed by an amnesty, Mirabelli said.

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