Senate panel ponders Berlusconi-ejection vote
Bogged down in arguments over anti-corruption law29 October, 18:58
(ANSA) - Rome, October 29 - A Senate panel met Tuesday to decide the date of a floor vote on ejecting ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi after a tax-fraud conviction and whether the vote should be secret, as current rules dictate, or open.
Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party, has been expected to face automatic expulsion because there is a majority, led by the PdL's uneasy government partner the Democratic Party (PD), in favour of applying a 2012 anti-corruption law.
Also firmly in favour of removing the three-time premier and media magnate are the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo.
PD and M5S votes would be enough to strip Berlusconi of his seat and expose him to possible arrests in other cases ranging from paying for sex with an underage prostitute and publishing an illegal wiretap. But fears have been raised that some PD and M5S members, along with enough centrists, would take advantage of the secrecy of the ballot to save Berlusconi from expulsion.
The PD has been pressing for the vote to be open to avoid possible 'sniping' such as that which sank ex-premier Romano Prodi's bid to become president after February's inconclusive elections, where the PD came first, the PdL a narrow second, and M5S third.
They have cited occasions in the past when the secret-vote rule has been overturned, including when late statesman Giulio Andreotti's ejection on Mafia charges was turned down.
But the PdL has said changing the rules for one individual would be "an affront to parliamentary practice".
The key decision on the secrecy of the vote - which needs an application from 20 Senators to be admitted - was expected to emerge Tuesday but the panel became bogged down in examining the implications of a recent appeals court ruling cutting Berlusconi's August 1 ban from office from five years to two.
The PdL latched on to the appeals court's citing the offence against the 2012 anti-corruption law as merely "administrative" to bolster its argument that the law id being applied retroactively in Berlusconi's case and therefore arguably against the Italian Constitution. The PD insists this is not the case and has rejected PdL claims that the Constitutional Court must examine the law.
The interpretation of the appeals court explanation and other procedural niceties and legal minutiae kept the panel from deciding the issue or setting a date for the vote.
Talks were expected to run into Wednesday.
An M5S motion to hold the Senate floor vote on November 5 was rejected. Press reports Tuesday predicted a mid-NOvember vote.
Earlier, Berlusconi was reported to have said it would be a "stain on Italian democracy" if he were ejected from the Senate after the supreme court.
"The vote to have me ejected from parliament would be a stain on Italian democracy destined to remain in the history books," Berlusconi said in excerpts of an interview from a new book by Italian broadcast journalist Bruno Vespa.
In the interview, Berlusconi called on Premier Enrico Letta, whose executive relies on the support of the 77-year-old's centre-right party, to intervene. "If the government wanted, it would have a highway to solving the problem," Berlusconi said.
"A justice bill is open for amendment and all it would take is a one-line interpretation measure that says the anti-corruption law does not apply to the past. Letta should say yes or no".
The supreme court's ruling on the tax fraud case came in August, long after the 2012 corruption law came into force, but the original conviction predates it.
The explanation of the Milan appeals court ban-cutting sentence, issued even earlier in the day, stirred a customary storm of invective from PdL members who staunchly agree with their leader that he has been the victim of leftwing magistrates since he entered the political arena 20 years ago.
The explanation said Berlusconi showed "particular intensity of misconduct" in the "crime he was accused of and in his persistence in it". In August the supreme Court of Cassation upheld a four-year prison sentence against the 77-year-old for tax fraud on film rights by his Mediaset broadcasting empire.
Three years of the sentence were commuted due to an amnesty and the 77-year-old premier has to do the remaining year by performing community service as he is too old to actually go to jail.
The supreme court sent the five-year ban on office back to the appeals level to be re-calculated and a Milan court reduced it to two years this month. The Milan appeals court said the fraud committed by Berlusconi was more serious "because of the role publicly adopted by the accused, above all that of a politician, worsens the assessment of his conduct". The explanation added that the supreme court ruling established that Berlusconi was the architect of a system that used offshore companies to collect funds and dodge taxes. It added that there was "no proof" Berlusconi had settled his debt with the Italian tax authorities. The PdL reacted with customary fury.
"Here is yet another confirmation of the will to persecute Silvio Berlusconi. Such rulings will certainly not oust a political leader who is loved by millions", said MP Renata Polverini, a former governor of the Lazio region who resigned last year over allegations of embezzlement of public funds.
"The judicial persecution against our leader continues unabated, with a timing and speed so incredible, they are unheard of in the Italian justice system", said Senate Whip Renato Schifani. "The rationale of the court of appeals is based on an unjust conviction, and the result cannot but be unjust", said PdL House whip Renato Brunetta. "We didn't know the leader of the center right is a monster, the mastermind of a massive system of fraud, a Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Were the court's reasoning not so patently delirious and troublesome, we would have to laugh", said MP Stefania Prestigiacomo, a former two-time minister during the Berlusconi administration. "They've come up with a new branch of the justice system: creative justice", quipped MP Daniela Santanché.
Santanché is among the hawks in the PdL marching behind Berlusconi's resuscitated version of his first party, Forza Italia.
There are also doves led by Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano who forced Berlusconi into an embarrassing last-minute U-turn over a confidence vote to sink Letta because of PD insistence on the office ban earlier this month.
Although Berlusconi last week effectively dissolved the PdL and sacked Alfano from his post as party secretary, the doves have been proclaiming their loyalty to their charismatic leader.
They differ from the hawks in stressing Italy can ill afford to remain rudderless as it struggles to emerge from its longest recession in 20 years and needs key structural economic and political reforms including a new electoral law to strip the Senate of its equal lawmaking status to the House, replacing the one that was blamed for producing February's stalemate.
Both sides agree on Berlusconi's alleged judicial persecution and on the importance of inserting justice reform into the architecture of a reform of Italy's postwar Constitution, which in reaction to the Fascist years mandated strict parliamentary controls on government, a weaker executive than in other countries, and an absolutely independent judiciary which quickly became politicised.
But despite the peacemaking since the traumatic confidence-vote clash, observers think a formal split has only been postponed to a meeting of Forza Italia's national council on December 8.
Political experts have been counting who might side with Alfano and who would stick with Berlusconi, with a big majority seen as opting for their ageless vote-catcher.
But there are enough doves to keep Letta afloat - as noted Tuesday by telegenic and fast-talking Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, who has been likened to a young Tony Blair and is expected to win the PD leadership on the same day, December 8.