Ritorni di Cavaliere

Silvio Berlusconi – former prime minister, opposition leader and the richest businessman in Italy – had a lot to celebrate this week. The court of cassation cleared him of corruption charges in connection with the sell-off of the semi-private comestible good company SME in the 1980s.

The Cavaliere’s company Fininvest had allegedly bribed judges to prevent the sale to rival and industrialist Carlo De Benendetti, a charge now cleared in court. Berlusconi called the 11-year-long investigation a “dishonorable hate campaign.”

“Billions were spent on an investigation in which I never should have been caught up in,” Berlusconi told the press after the decision.

Though all is not yet entirely well for the opposition leader, his political campaign to return to the “throne” received another boost on Oct. 25, when Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s fragmented Ulivo coalition government conceded four parliamentary defeats in one day, as Antonio di Pietro’s party Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) voted against the government’s budget amendmen.  Di Pietro, a former Public Prosecutor and current infrastructure minister, had led the mani pulite (clean hands) investigation in 1992, revealing widespread corruption and leading to a shake-up of Italian politics. This tangentially paved the way for the emergence of Silvio Berluscoini and his party Forza Italia, as he merged his economic interests with political power when becoming Prime Minister in 1994 and 2001.

Di Pietro’s resistance indicates that Prodi has some work to do to survive the weeks ahead politically, and resolve the fate of Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, accused of undermining investigations against his misuse of EU funds by transferring Prosecutor Luigi De Magistris to a new post. Not surprisingly, Di Pietro insists on the dismissal of Mastella.

European commentators have spoken of a ‘Black Thursday’ for Prodi’s government, and the chances of its survival for the entire term seem unlikely. With a narrow majority of two seats in the senate, Berlusconi has done everything possible to undermine the stability of the ruling left-wing government. After losing the May 2006 general elections, the Cavaliere threatened to “buy those two.” However, Prodi’s technique of combining senate motions with a vote of confidence has kept the diverse coalition together for the past 18 months.

So Berlusconi continues to increase the pressure, and hopes that moderate forces within the Ulivo coalition will prevail. Among those senators targeted are three from the German-speaking conservative SVP (Südtiroler Volkspartei), traditionally distrustful of right-wing Italian governments. Berlusconi has made the first step toward reconciliation, though senior SVP party members deny that the retraction of Forza Italia hardliner Michaela Biancofiore in the province has any impact on their political stand.

“We are not for sale”, they say, while Berlusconi himself denies he is trying to buy, only offering an “interesting sphere of activities.”

In the meantime, Romano Prodi, remains calm, as he celebrated the upcoming Austrian National Holiday with Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer at the Austrian Embassy in Rome.

“Those who are believed dead, always live longer,” he said with a smile.

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