Italy's Berlusconi Says He'll Take Down Government if Forced Out of Politics

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
Silvio Berlusconi

The billionaire media tycoon is facing a ban from politics after a Supreme Court ruling, but there's no indication that he will obey the court's verdict.

ROME – With an apparent collapse in talks over the future of Italian media mogul and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, threats are swirling that if Berlusconi is out of politics, he’ll take the Italian government with him.

Three weeks ago, Italy’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling charging Berlusconi with tax evasion and false accounting in connection with €300 million ($393 million) in acquisition deals for U.S.-based content for his Mediaset cinema and television giant. The deal carried a four-year jail term -- reduced to a year of likely house arrest -- and it required the lower court to reconsider a five-year ban from politics.

Ever since, Berlusconi’s allies have been in talks with Italian prime minister Enrico Letta to determine Berlusconi’s role going forward. Berlusconi’s political party is the second-largest party in Letta’s coalition, but the two sides are traditional rivals and it seems likely that a parliamentary vote could strip Berlusconi of his position as a senator.

Though that would have no official impact on Berlusconi’s allies in parliament, Renato Brunetta, the whip for Berlusconi’s party in parliament’s lower house, said the party would withdraw its support for Letta if steps are taken against the party’s founder.

“If there’s a partnership and one partner tries to get rid of the other, then the partnership is dissolved,” Brunetta said.

A wide array of exits from the growing crisis have been floated by Berlusconi’s forces, ranging from a possible amnesty for Berlusconi (Letta’s allies rejected that possibility Friday) to the reduction of the politics ban to a symbolic three months (Italian president Giorgio Napolitano said the Supreme Court ruling “must be respected”).

Earlier in the week, Berlusconi told supporters via social media, “I won’t step down! I’m resisting!”

A parliamentary vote on the topic is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 9. If Berlusconi is voted out and the government falls, it could spark new elections. And while Berlusconi would not be able to run, he would have a big say in who heads any follow-up government -- a pledge of support many analysts say could depend on the next leader’s promise to reduce or eliminate Berlusconi’s punishment.

But while the crisis is leaving the Letta government’s prospects dim, Berlusconi’s Mediaset seems to have shrugged off the news. The shares have been on a tear so far this year, nearly tripling in value from their all-time low of €1.16 ($1.52) set in December by the end of July (the Supreme Court ruling was Aug. 1). They’ve been mostly flat since then, but they have still outperformed the Italian Stock Exchange’s blue chip index over that period, closing trading Friday at €3.36 ($4.40). Several investment banks have upgraded Mediaset’s ratings in recent weeks, judging that the tycoon’s political and legal woes are likely to have limited impact on the company’s day-to-day operations.

Twitter: @EricJLyman