For those hoping to watch another nail driven into Silvio Berlusconi's coffin, the decision last weekend by a Milan court to cut short his corruption trial must have come as a disappointment. "Everybody was waiting for the verdict to knock him out," says Paolo Guzzanti, an independent member of Parliament and a onetime ally of the former Prime Minister. "But now, because the trial is finished, he's going to still feel very much in the game."Many Italians, including it seemed Berlusconi himself, expected the court to hand down a conviction on charges that he bribed a British attorney to provide false testimony in an earlier case, thereby landing the ex-Prime Minister a politically painful blow. Instead, the court ruled the statute of limitations had expired. In Italy, the time limit is usually 10 years. In this case, the wrongdoing was alleged to have taken place in 1999, but the charges were only filed in 2006. In the meantime, several postponements in the process took place. The prosecutor apparently believed he had a few months left; the judge decided otherwise.
To be sure, Berlusconi's victory in court hardly leaves him a man free from legal entanglements. The flamboyant billionaire still stands as a defendant in three other trials, including accusations of corruption, tax fraud, illegal leaking of sensitive information, paying for sex with a minor and abusing his office to cover it up. Berlusconi, who says he is the victim of a judicial witch hunt by politically biased prosecutors, denies all the charges.
Berlusconi's travails have left him stripped of much of the political support he once enjoyed. He spent much of his last term watching allies flake away as series of prostitution scandals unveiled ever more lurid details. And then, last fall, panicking bond markets dealt the coup de grâce, pushing him out of office to make room for the technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Monti and provoking a schism between his party and its closest ally, the populist Northern League.
But while there's no doubt that Berlusconi's legal troubles are a heavy burden, they also ensure that he will not leave the political field of battle. While few think the three-time Prime Minster will ever head the government again, none doubt that he remains a force to be reckoned with in Italian politics. And indeed, the day after the court made its ruling, he renewed calls for a reform of the justice system. "He's certainly weakened," says Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome's LUISS University. "But he still has a lot of reasons to stay. And so he's not out of the picture yet."
Though Berlusconi has declared he will not run in the next elections, most likely to be held in early 2013, he retains control of the largest party in Parliament, providing key support for the government of Prime Minister Monti. Berlusconi also remains Italy's richest citizen and one of its best-known politicians, with a long track record of digging himself out of trouble. "He wants to be the big father behind the scene," says Guzzanti.
That's by no means out of the question. Since his resignation, Berlusconi has been staying out of the spotlight, nursing his wounds instead of seeking confrontation. But the former Prime Minister remains a skilled and resourceful campaigner. Even weakened, his party continues to muster 22% of the vote, one of the largest measures of support in the divided Parliament, and among the many proposals being discussed in Parliament is a change to the electoral law that would give parties of that size greater say in the country's politics. Berlusconi's opponents should not be surprised if he rises once again.