Berlusconi supporters protest over tax conviction

The Guardian, ROME

Tue, Aug 06, 2013 - Page 7

Supporters of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi descended on his palatial Rome residence on Sunday as the billionaire’s conviction for tax fraud continued to unsettle the country’s fragile political “status quo.”

Playing the center-right leader’s campaign anthem on a loop, a vocal section of the almost 10 million people who voted for his People of Freedom (PDL) party in February’s elections turned out to voice their anger at last week’s verdict from the Italian supreme court.

Before a sea of flags — noticeably more of which were for the Forza Italia party which Berlusconi has said he wants to re-form in September — the 76-year-old once again attacked the country’s judicial system and defended his record.

“I am innocent,” he bellowed, saying he felt a “duty” to stay in the political field.

“I am here. I am staying here. I won’t give up. We will continue together to fight this battle for democracy and freedom,” he said.

Berlusconi’s first definitive conviction is likely to see him spend a year under house arrest and be stripped of his seat in Italy’s upper house of parliament, or Senate.

It has also raised serious concerns for the future of Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s coalition government, of which the PDL is a vital junior partner.

On Friday last week Berlusconi reportedly told his MPs they should push for judicial reform or be ready for fresh elections. However, there have since been signs he may want to back away from triggering an immediate crisis. On Sunday he declared that Letta’s government “must go on.”

Tensions between the various coalition forces continued on Saturday as one of the former premier’s closest associates, Sandro Bondi, declared that, unless a way were found to ease the situation, “Italy truly risks a form of civil war with unpredictable results for all.”

The comments came as Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, the 88-year-old who wearily agreed to stand for an unprecedented second term earlier this year to facilitate the formation of the Letta government, returned from his summer holiday. The president was reported to have swiftly condemned Bondi’s remarks as “irresponsible.”

Napolitano is central to the PDL’s “Save Silvio” strategy. Party officials have said they intend to ask him to pardon Berlusconi — a request observers said was unlikely to be granted even if the president were desperate for the parties to avoid holding fresh elections.

In a move seen as aimed at lowering the tone of the PDL’s outrage, Italian Public Works Minister Maurizio Lupi announced that none of his fellow government colleagues would attend the solidarity rally outside Berlusconi’s Palazzo Grazioli.