Thursday, November 28, 2013

Berlusconi Expelled From Senate in Italy

Silvio Berlusconi, 77, speaking to his supporters in downtown 
Rome on Wednesday. Tony Gentile/Reuters
By JIM YARDLEY, The New York Times
November 27, 2013

ROME — Having spent months manufacturing procedural delays or conjuring political melodrama in hopes of saving himself, Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday could no longer stave off the inevitable: Italy’s Senate resoundingly stripped him of his parliamentary seat, a dramatic and humiliating expulsion, even as other potential troubles await him.

In the hours before the vote, Italian senators read speeches for or against Mr. Berlusconi, the powerful former prime minister. Mr. Berlusconi responded with an outdoor rally in central Rome, transforming the day into a televised, split-screen standoff: On one side was the former prime minister, declaring himself a victim of persecution and pledging to remain a political force; on the other was the Senate, with a majority of rival politicians, who finished their speeches and lowered the boom.

His expulsion was confirmed through a series of votes, and after a day of passionate arguments, the reaction in the chamber was striking after the final tally: silence.

“I think we are at a crossroads today,” Senator Gianfranco Casini said during the speeches before the vote. “However it goes, a 20-year period is concluded.”

Mr. Berlusconi, 77, is now staring at a cascade of stubborn realities. His removal from the Senate means that he is without elective office for the first time in roughly two decades and that he has lost the special immunities awarded to lawmakers. With other legal cases underway against him — and the possibility that new litigation will be filed — Mr. Berlusconi is now far more vulnerable than he was when, as prime minister, he seemed virtually untouchable, swatting away sex and corruption scandals.

He is also expected to soon start performing community service for the tax fraud conviction that forms the basis for his removal from the Senate. Moreover, a court in Milan has ruled that Mr. Berlusconi cannot seek any public office for the next two years. For a man who once dominated Italy with a ribald swagger, Mr. Berlusconi is suddenly a sharply reduced figure, having recently watched several of his longtime lieutenants break away from him.

Determined to show his political viability, Mr. Berlusconi bused in supporters from around Italy for the rally outside his palace in central Rome. They waved flags, braved the November cold and sang songs hailing their leader.

“It’s just unfair that they would condemn him when Parliament is full of people who are way worse than him, who have avoided taxes, stolen public money and worked against the people,” said Alessandra Abbate, 49, a supporter from Bologna. “This country would be nothing without him.”

Mr. Berlusconi appeared at 4:35 p.m., before the Senate voted, and stood on a cheery sky-blue stage erected for the occasion. He repeated his familiar complaints against Italy’s judiciary, blaming reckless magistrates for his legal problems.

“It is a bitter day, a day of mourning for democracy,” Mr. Berlusconi told the crowd, adding that other leaders, including Beppe Grillo, the former comedian and head of the antigovernment Five Star Movement, were powerful figures in politics, despite not holding office.

“We are here, will be here and will stay here,” Mr. Berlusconi vowed. “Let’s not despair if the leader of the center-right is no longer a senator.”

Mr. Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul, dominated Italy’s powerful center-right political movement for two decades until recent weeks, when his support splintered. Last month, he forced a confidence vote against the coalition government — hoping he could force new elections and, perhaps, revive himself politically. But several of his key allies rebelled, forcing Mr. Berlusconi to reverse himself and support the government.

Mr. Berlusconi then announced that he would rebrand his People of Liberty Party as Forza Italia, the name of the party he used at the beginning of his political career in the 1990s. Instead, a group of center-right lawmakers, led by Angelino Alfano, his longtime protégé, broke away, forming a parliamentary faction that would continue to support the coalition government.

On Wednesday, Mr. Berlusconi announced that Forza Italia would withdraw its previous support for the coalition government, which is an awkward partnership of parties from the political left and right. Even as this move narrowed the government’s majority, many analysts said it would strengthen Prime Minister Enrico Letta. Mr. Letta has at times struggled to reconcile the contradictions in the coalition, especially in recent months as Mr. Berlusconi sought to destabilize or even bring down the government.

Mr. Berlusconi’s enemies have long blamed him for debasing Italy’s political culture and have accused him of using politics as a tool to advance his business interests and increase his vast fortune.

Paola Taverna, a senator with the Five Star Movement, blamed him for passing laws that benefited his own interests without ever pushing through the structural changes needed to reform Italy’s economy and political system.

Speaking to Mr. Berlusconi as if he were in the chamber, Ms. Taverna called him a “a habitual offender and a recidivist, the promoter, organizer and beneficiary of his crimes.”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

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