Italy's Berlusconi Down But Not Out, Threatens to Make Government Collapse

 Jacob Raule/Getty Images

ROME – Over the last week, Italian billionaire media baron and off-again-on-again Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has abandoned his plans to seek a return to the prime minister’s office, and then been convicted of corruption and tax evasion in connection the Mediaset film and television empire he owns. His response? He threatened to bring the Italian government to its knees.

Speaking for the first time since his first-ever conviction after 20 years of legal woes, Berlusconi rambled on for 90 minutes in a televised weekend news conference, threatening to pull his party’s support for Mario Monti, the technocrat who took power in Italy after Berlusconi stepped down 11 months ago. Berlusconi also railed against what he called the “painful austerity measures” he said Germany imposed on Italy and other countries, said the Italian judiciary was stocked with communist magistrates, and urged Italians to vote in next year’s election for a party promising lower taxes and fewer restrictions on the use of cash.

He said the economic problems most Italians are suffering from were “imposed by Mrs. Merkel [and] designed only to lead to recession and pain,” a reference to German chancellor Angela Merkel, who Berlusconi has never been shy about criticizing.

Berlusconi, whose media holdings include four national television networks in Italy and one in Spain, cinema production and distribution house Medusa, and various print media, has been a polarizing figure in Italy for 20 years - nine of them as prime minister.

The 76-year-old Berlusconi has been dogged by legal troubles and personal scandal for most of his political career. Those factors and fears that his leadership could cause Italy to fall victim to the European debt crisis precipitated his resignation as prime minister last November.

Earlier this year, he said he was preparing to run for prime minister again in 2013. But that effort never gained traction and last week he said he would drop out. Then, less than 48 hours later, judges in Milan found Berlusconi guilty and sentenced him to four years in jail and banned him from politics for five years. His lawyers immediately announced plans to appeal.

In the interview, Berlusconi threatened to pull his party’s support from the Monti government if it continued to support unpopular austerity policies aimed at paying down debt by raising taxes and reducing government spending. His comments about communist magistrates and criticisms of Germany’s Merkel are common lines of his.

With or without Berlusconi there is no clear favorite for the prime minister’s post heading towards the elections next year.

When Berlusconi stepped down 11 months ago, he promised to focus his energies on revitalizing Mediaset, the media giant he founded. But so far that focus has done little good: the company’s stock price hovers near 52-week lows, while ad sales revenue, and profits all erode. The company has recently declared a moratorium on acquiring foreign productions or on developing new content on its own. Newspapers have reported the company is looking to sell off some assets.

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