Berlusconi Comeback Reaches Human Rights JudgesBy
At age 81, media mogul aims for fifth term as prime minister
Berlusconi wants ban on running for public office thrown out
Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi took his comeback bid to the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday as his lawyers fought to make him eligible for next year’s Italian election.
Judges at the court in Strasbourg, France, held a hearing on the 81-year-old Berlusconi’s appeal against a ban on running for public office that resulted from a 2013 tax-fraud conviction. The multi-billionaire has denied all wrongdoing.
Berlusconi wants the ban overturned in time for a general election due by late May. He is seeking to forge a center-right coalition after the vote and his hopes were boosted by victory in a regional ballot in Sicily this month.
“The court is unlikely to reach a verdict in time for the election,” said Andrea Montanino, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “But for Berlusconi this is also about creating a mood, to portray himself as a victim of the Italian judicial system he has always fought against.”
The ex-premier’s legal battles in Italy have spanned allegedly sexual “bunga-bunga” parties, which he described as “elegant dinners,” and allegations of corruption which he denies. He has dismissed judges and prosecutors as communists and “mentally disturbed.”
He said earlier this month that a center-right government program would include tax cuts, a new flat tax “as low as possible,” a stop to illegal immigration and a drive “against the Europe of bureaucrats and obtuse constraints.”
Berlusconi was stripped of his parliamentary seat with a vote in a Senate where his opponents were a majority, Edward Fitzgerald, one of Berlusconi’s lawyers, said in court, according to Italian newswire Ansa. It wasn’t justice but a “Roman amphitheater” in which a majority of thumbs down or thumbs up decided the person’s fate, Fitzgerald added.
The law instituting the ban had been used retroactively, applied to alleged offenses years before the law was passed, added Fitzgerald, of Doughty Street Chambers in London.
Maria Giuliana Civinini, a lawyer for the Italian government, said that it had respected the European Convention on Human Rights, according to Ansa. “No violation can be attributed” to the government, she said.
Berlusconi, who first made his appeal to the court in 2013, argues that the ban violates his rights under the Convention, Andrea Saccucci, another one of his lawyers, said in a phone interview before the hearing. The morning hearing is expected to end at about 12 p.m. Berlusconi did not attend.
Saccucci said he couldn’t predict whether the court would reach a verdict in time for the election. “The court usually takes quite some time, at least eight to ten months, but we hope it will decide as soon as possible,” said Saccucci, a Rome-based lawyer who is an associate of Doughty Street Chambers.
Asked whether a verdict was likely by May 2018, the court’s press office said in an email: “It is impossible to speculate about the time frame within which the Grand Chamber will deliver its ruling on the case.”
Striker or Coach
Berlusconi has made his political ambitions clear, whatever and whenever the judges decide. “I’ll be in the field!” Berlusconi tweeted on Nov. 16. “I’ll be the striker if I am eligible, otherwise I’ll be the coach.”
Even if Berlusconi cannot run for office, he may end up calling the shots on forming a government.
“If no party wins a parliamentary majority as expected, the most likely coalition will be centered on Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Democratic Party even though they are now rivals,” said Montanino, a former executive director for Italy at the International Monetary Fund. “Berlusconi may not be premier, but he could be king maker.”
Latest opinion polls show the anti-establishment Five Star Movement leading the center-left Democrats of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. Both parties trail a possible center-right coalition. For now, none of these groups has enough support to win a parliamentary majority on its own.
“I’d be pleased if Berlusconi were able to run because I’d like to suggest he should run against me,” ex-prime minister Matteo Renzi, who is seeking the premiership for the Democrats, told RAI television on Tuesday evening. Renzi said he would be running for a parliamentary seat in Milan.
— With assistance by Alessandra Migliaccio