Italy Election Breakthrough: Silvio Berlusconi Could Wage New Prime Minister Campaign

Silvio Berlusconi - Political Plans and Legal Charges
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Italian media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has often been seen as the teflon media mogul - always facing legal and other charges, but never really facing consequences. In Oct. 2012 though, a court sentenced the head of media group Mediaset, whose stock has been dropping amid weak ad trends, to four years in prison in a tax evasion case - marking the first time he is facing time behind bars. And just before Christmas, prosecutors also called for a prison sentence of at least one year for Berlusconi on charges of publishing information about a political rival that was obtained illegally. The three-time prime minister, meanwhile, announced he would run for a fourth term in early 2013 after having left political office in late 2011.

The billionaire media mogul could be the favorite if elections are called for early in the summer, but he'd be running while standing trial.

ROME – In the first major breakthrough of Italy’s nine-week-old political crisis, Giorgio Napolitano was cajoled into staying on for a new term as Italy’s president this weekend, putting in place a series of events that many analysts believe could result in a new campaign to become prime minister from Silvio Berlusconi.

The news comes as Berlusconi’s abuse of power and underage sex trial has been postponed until mid-May, setting up what could be a busy summer for the billionaire media kingpin.

The process to select Italy’s next prime minister has been deadlocked since a Feb. 24-25 vote failed to produce a clear-cut winner. The crisis was made more complicated because Napolitano, whose term was set to expire May 15, was prohibited from taking certain emergency measures during his last six months in office. Several replacement candidates were floated by the major coalitions before Napolitano was elected with a strong majority on the sixth ballot late on Saturday.

At 87 years of age, Napolitano is likely to step down before completing his second seven-year term, but his selection sets the stage for him to dissolve parliament and call new elections. If that indeed happens, Berlusconi says he will stand as a candidate for prime minister, an office he's already held three times.

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And he could be the pre-election favorite, particularly if the elections are called to take place in the next few weeks. Berlusconi’s center-right political network remains formidable, but the center-left coalition is in disarray after the resignation of Pier Luigi Bersani last week. Bersani is likely to be replaced by 38-year-old Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, who will need time to rally the party. But once he does, the dynamic Renzi is likely to siphon support away from Beppe Grillo, the former comedian whose populist campaign struck a chord with many young voters.

If elections are called for as soon as June, as some Italian media predict, it could mean that the 76-year-old Berlusconi would be campaigning while standing trial for alleged abuses of power and for paying an underage girl, former erotic dancer Karima el-Mahroug, for sex. El-Mahroug, now 20, was 17 at the time.

The abuse of power charge, stemming from pressure Berlusconi asserted to get el-Mahroug off the hook on a minor theft charge, carries a maximum 12-year jail term, with the underage sex charge carrying a maximum sentence of three years behind bars.

The trial was supposed to restart Monday, but the Milan court delayed the process until a Supreme Court decision about whether the trial should be moved to another city. Berlusconi’s lawyers say a “hostile environment” exists in Milan. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by May 6, and the trial could restart within a week of that date.

Berlusconi controls the Mediaset television and cinema empire, which includes three national networks in Italy and one in Spain, the Medusa film production and distribution house, and several print media.

Twitter: @EricJLyman