Americans learning that Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted of exploiting a teen-age prostitute and sentenced to seven years in prison might say, “Well, that’s the end of him.” The three judges on the case in Milan—all women, as it happened—included in his sentence a lifetime ban from public office. Berlusconi’s crimes go beyond frequenting prostitutes, exploiting a minor, and keeping whores at his disposal for his so-called Bunga Bunga parties. They also involve a serious abuse of office. When a young Moroccan immigrant named Karima el-Mahroug, also known by her stage name, Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby the Heart-Stealer), was arrested for theft, Berlusconi called the Milan police station and insisted that Ruby was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and should be let go immediately, to avoid an international incident. The police released her into the custody of Nicole Minetti, a dental hygienist who had performed a striptease dressed as a nun at Berlusconi’s parties. Minetti was rewarded for her efforts with a high-paying job in the government of Lombardy (the region of which Milan is the capital). As Minetti eloquently put it in a phone conversation with another woman who was supplied for Berlusconi’s parties, “It’s convenient for him to put you and me in Parliament because he can say, ‘Well, I’ve gotten rid of them, and the citizens will pay their salaries!’ ”
How can Berlusconi survive something like this? There are several reasons, legal, political, and cultural. This is the third major case this year in which Berlusconi has been convicted.
In some ways, the first of the three convictions was the most troubling. In 2005, an employee of a private contractor carrying out wiretaps for the government came to see Paolo Berlusconi, Silvio’s brother and the titular owner of the family newspaper Il Giornale, at his villa in Arcore. (Silvio Berlusconi passed the ownership to his brother in order to get around Italy’s weak antitrust laws.) In complete violation of the law, the man played a tape of a phone conversation involving Piero Fassino, one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, Berlusconi’s chief competition in the upcoming elections. Fassino was heard talking with a banker about a takeover battle then under way, “So, do we have a bank?” Fassino asked. As it happened, Fassino was never found to have played a particular role in that takeover, and judges ruled that his taped comment had no relevance to any criminal proceeding. But the tape was an extraordinary gift. When Berlusconi listened to the conversation, on Christmas Eve, at his villa in Arcore, he told the bearer of the tape that he could count on his “eternal gratitude.” A few days later, Il Giornale began publishing the stolen tapes to great political effect, creating an appearance of moral equivalence between Berlusconi and his political opponents.
The story dominated the state television channel, RAI, which Berlusconi, as the Prime Minister, directly controlled (he also controls the three largest private TV networks, which he owns outright). Thanks in part to the publication of the tapes, Berlusconi rose in the polls from nearly twenty points down. The winner of the election, Romano Prodi, had such a tiny majority that his government, weak and divided, lasted less than two years, paving the way for Berlusconi’s return to power in 2008.
In the next case, Berlusconi was found complicit in a large-scale fraud, orchestrated by his company, involving the sham buying and selling of film and television rights through offshore companies in order to cheat the Italian treasury of tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of euros, and to create a flow of cash available for Berlusconi’s personal use. (The girls at the Bunga Bunga parties reported receiving envelopes of money.) The original conviction was upheld on appeal, increasing the likelihood of a definitive sentence.
In February of this year, Berlusconi was placed under investigation for a fourth case: paying three million euros to buy the vote of a center-left senator, Sergio de Gregorio. “I participated in the operation to bring down the Prodi government,” de Gregorio confessed to prosecutors in Naples. “I discussed a strategy of sabotage with Berlusconi, for which I assume full responsibility.… My meeting with Berlusconi served to reach the agreement for three million euros…. I don’t mean to justify myself. I know it’s a crime, but I was up to my neck in debts.” Buying votes to subvert the results of an election qualifies, along with treason, as one of the most serious crimes that can occur in a democracy. And yet this case had no noticeable impact on the elections later that month, in which Berlusconi’s coalition won a shockingly high percentage of the vote, enough to deprive the center right of a working majority, forcing them to depend on his support to govern.
Any one of these scandals would have shattered the career of a politician in most other democratic countries—why haven’t they represented a serious impediment to Berlusconi? For one, convictions at trial do not carry the same legal weight in Italy that they do in the U.S. The Italian justice system has three levels, and a conviction does not become “definitive” until the defendant has exhausted his final appeal. Moreover, Italy has a statute-of-limitations system that allows an extraordinary number of defendants, and Berlusconi in particular, to avoid a definitive judgment through delay. In every other democracy I am aware of, the statute-of-limitations clock stops ticking as soon as judicial action begins, which means that a defendant cannot avoid conviction through legal pettifogging and stalling tactics. In Italy, the clock keeps ticking, with the predictable result that defendants with good lawyers routinely get off by filing motion after motion. In fact, Berlusconi has been convicted at trial in six different cases for serious charges, including paying off judges and senior politicians, but time ran out on these cases, so they became, legally speaking, nonexistent.
Weaseling out on a technicality may seem problematic for a politician, but the extinction of these cases has allowed Berlusconi to present himself as a genuine innocent in the eyes of the law. This, combined with the sheer number of criminal cases, actually allows him to play the victim.
When the conviction (on appeal) in the illegal-wiretapping case was announced, one of Berlusconi’s spokesmen, Daniele Capezzone, commented, “Today, defending Silvio Berlusconi means defending democracy, defending the right of Italian voters to choose their own representatives and not see results decided at the ballot box overturned in the courts.” This message was magnified by Berlusconi’s media machine, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s most important news outlets.
Another factor, not to be underestimated, is the way in which the prevalence of tax evasion in Italy creates a natural constituency for Berlusconi and his legal troubles. Berlusconi has declared that it is immoral to pay more than a third of one’s income in taxes, despite heading governments with fifty-per-cent tax brackets.
Berlusconi has been remarkably successful in exploiting Italians’ distrust of their judiciary (which, to be fair, does have problems) and political class. I once overheard a group of young men in Palermo arguing that the absence of criminal investigations into Romano Prodi was a sign not of his moral probity but, rather, of a gross injustice: “Berlusconi got twenty indictments, and Prodi not even one!” The assumption behind the comment was that all politicians do the most terrible things but only Berlusconi gets investigated for them. As Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of another Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Foglio, remarked in response to Berlusconi’s conviction today in the Ruby Rubacuori case, “Siamo tutti puttane.” “We’re all whores.”