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Berlusconi, Italy's master of self-interest

He still faces three court cases, but the former premier is far from finished.

The irony probably wasn't lost on Silvio Berlusconi on the evening of 8 November when, with bitter reluctance, the tycoon-premier said he would quit in order to halt the disastrous downward slide of Italy's stock market. Mr Berlusconi entered politics 17 years ago to save his business interests – at that time from left-wing politicians who wanted to dismantle them. Three weeks ago he was quitting office for the very same reason; only this time it was the markets that threatened his media empire.

With the speculators singling out Italy, it was Mediaset that felt the force of their attack. The company had already lost 20 per cent of its value in five days, but on 8 November the fall accelerated. A day earlier Mr Berlusconi had met with Fedele Confalonieri, the chairman of Mediaset and his oldest friend, who is widely believed to have told his boss that the game was up for him as Prime Minister – and that by failing to step down immediately, he risked his business empire.

But Mr Berlusconi's decision to step down brings huge legal risks. His instinct to cling on to high office was underpinned by the knowledge that quitting would leave him more vulnerable to Milan's magistrates, who are trying to convict him in three criminal cases.

As head of government he was able to avoid court appearances that clashed with prime ministerial engagements, thereby delaying trials and making it more likely that the statute of limitations, already modified to his own advantage, would kill off at least one case. Similar manoeuvres in the past have seen him beat convictions.

Depending on which source you believe, Mr Berlusconi faces between 20 and 40 court appearances between now and May, in three ongoing trials.

One of those could come today, when he resumes his defence against the charge that he bribed the British lawyer David Mills with $600,000 (£398,000). He also faces the charge of tax fraud relating to his Mediaset empire and – in the most recent and salacious trial – of sex with a minor and abuse of office.

The Mills bribery trial will certainly die under the statute of limitations early next year before the appeals process can begin, although magistrates will be eager to bag a symbolic initial guilty verdict. Nor are prosecutors likely to get a definitive conviction against him in the Mediaset tax fraud trial, which involves complex accounting trails across continents.

Their best bet for a conviction rests with the "Rubygate" sex and corruption trial. In another ironic twist, one of the laws Mr Berlusconi himself passed, which lowers the burden of proof required in such sex cases, may come back to haunt him.

And if all of this weren't enough, the accusations of Mafia association have never been far away. Last week a prosecutor told a Palermo court that one of the mogul's oldest and closest associates, Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, a founding member of Mr Berlusconi's original Forza Italia party, was the intermediary between the former premier and Cosa Nostra bosses.

Even with a definitive conviction, sentencing guidelines mean that Mr Berlusconi, as a septuagenarian, will not go to prison. But he clearly hasn't given up efforts to maintain his political power base in case it can once again strengthen his hand legally.

Even before stepping down, the media mogul reportedly offered his successor as Prime Minister, Mario Monti, the support of his PDL MPs in exchange for guarantees on justice legislation that might work to his advantage. Mr Monti is said to have quickly refused the offer.

Many pundits say it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mr Berlusconi will make a fourth bid for high office. The political scientist Franco Panvoncello, of Rome's John Cabot University, noted that "he's still the only prominent figure that people know and might want to vote for".

Paolo Flores d'Arcais, the editor of the Italian magazine MicroMega, notes that while Mr Berlusconi is no longer premier, "Berlusconismo is far from finished". He says that most of Mr Berlusconi's self-serving legislation remains in place, as does his "monopolistic domination" of Italian television. "Only when this deluge of illegality has been properly dismantled can we claim that the post-Berlusconi era has really begun," he said.