Berlusconi insists on justice reform

NOWHERE LEFT TO HIDE::Silvio Berlusconi maintains Italy’s justice system is biased against him after he received his first definitive sentence following dozens of trials

Reuters, ROME

Sun, Aug 04, 2013 - Page 6

Italy’s center right must push through justice reform or withdraw from the coalition government, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi told his People of Freedom (PDL) party on Friday after his conviction for tax fraud was upheld by the supreme court.

Just three months after center-left Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta took office at the head of an uneasy alliance with Berlusconi’s PDL, the eurozone’s third-largest economy faces deep uncertainty that may further hinder efforts at reform.

Struggling to contain divisions over tax and economic policy, the coalition’s lifespan may depend on when Berlusconi’s party considers it most politically expedient to try to force an election.

“If there is no reform of the justice system, we are ready for new elections,” Berlusconi told PDL lawmakers at a party meeting on Friday, according to a source who attended and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The media mogul and his supporters maintain the justice system is biased against him.

Five PDL government ministers told the party leadership they were willing to resign if needed, Senator Lucio Malan told reporters after the meeting, saying: “They entrusted their mandates to Berlusconi...We agreed to decide what to do in the coming days.”

Yet how imminent a threat such talk may pose remains uncertain, with the 76-year-old billionaire apparently cautious about rushing into action before he is ready.

“Berlusconi said not to take any hasty decisions and to think of the interests of the country,” PDL Infrastructure Minister Maurizio Lupi told reporters.

Officials at the meeting also said that senior party members may ask Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to pardon Berlusconi — an idea the president rejected last month.

Letta repeated on Friday that Italy must have a stable government, saying the last thing it needs is to be worn down by partisan battles.

Berlusconi faces the threat of a year under house arrest or in community service as well as losing his seat in parliament over the first definitive sentence he has received in dozens of trials during his two decades in politics.

While he is unlikely to spend any time in jail due to his age, the verdict was an unprecedented blow and a Senate vote on expelling him from parliament could come next month.

He has declared he will continue his political activities under the Forza Italia (Go Italy!) name of his first party, with speculation growing that his daughter Marina may succeed him as party leader.

The upheaval means the already dim prospects of significant reforms to revive Italy’s economy and cut its debt have receded further.

Agreement over thorny issues such as privatizations due in the autumn, or the much-disputed IMU property tax which Berlusconi wants to scrap, but which would blow a hole in already strained public finances, will be difficult.

“It depends on the PDL,” said Italian Deputy Economy Minister Stefano Fassina, of Letta’s center-left Democratic Party (PD).

“It’s not something which can be settled in the next few hours, but over the next few weeks, we’ll have to settle the IMU issue and on an issue like this, it can’t just be about Berlusconi’s personal interests,” he said.

Problems just as serious could also come from Fassina’s own fractious camp, with many in the center-left unhappy at the prospect of remaining in alliance with a convicted tax evader.

To add to the problems facing Letta, Matteo Renzi, the ambitious young mayor of Florence, is widely expected to mount a bid to lead the party.

Letta said the situation was “politically very delicate” and called on all sides to show responsibility in the interests of the country, but he acknowledged there were limits to what was acceptable.

“I don’t consider that continuing at any cost is necessarily in the interests of the country,” he said.