Far from being a sideshow, Silvio Berlusconi's legal battles have dominated Italian politics for decades

The former President became a figure of ridicule and spawned a thousand other crooks

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Throughout his 18 years in politics, there has not been one moment in which the threat of criminal prosecution did not hang over Silvio Berlusconi’s head.

In government he devoted an immense amount of time and ingenuity to thwarting the prosecutors. In the end, nearly a year after he resigned as PM, he failed. With the four-year prison term and the ban on taking public office which the Milan judges have imposed, the public disgrace he has dreaded for so long is now upon him. If the conviction is upheld at the two higher levels of the justice system – a fairly big if, especially as the statute of limitations could kill the case stone dead next year – his humiliation will be complete.  

There are two diametrically opposed explanations for the media mogul’s long war of attrition with the law. Mr Berlusconi’s is that all these years he has been harried and harassed by a clique of ‘toghe rosse’, communist prosecutors, determined to drive him from the office that he had legitimately obtained through the ballot box. Politically, the argument goes, communism in Italy is a dead duck; but committed reds still infest Italy’s public institutions. No longer able to fight him by fair, electoral means, instead they resort to the foul means of cooking up cases against him.

This argument has just enough coherence to convince the millions of Italians who have long adored him that Berlusconi is an innocent victim. There is plenty of whimsy, caprice and impunity in the Italian legal system: courts that can convict Amanda Knox of murder without forensic evidence and hand out long jail sentences to seismologists for “manslaughter” are always going to be vulnerable to criticism.

The other explanation is that Mr Berlusconi only succeeded in becoming the richest man in the country by breaking the law frequently and systematically. For years he was protected by the patronage of Bettino Craxi, his close friend and the head of the Socialist Party to whom, at one point, Berlusconi paid the biggest bribe in Italian history. Craxi was swept away by the avalanche of “Mani Pulite” - “Clean Hands” - the huge corruption scandal that turned Italian politics inside out in the early 1990s; Berlusconi only went into politics, it is argued, because it was the only way he could think of to protect himself and his fortune from the sort of legal attacks that had brought down the rest of the rotten system.

So Berlusconi’s legal battles of the past two decades have not been a sideshow to Italian politics but in a sense the main action. And for those who like to think that a cleaner, more honest Italy could emerge as a result of the paroxysms through which the country went in the early 1990s, his success in keeping the prosecutors at bay through immunity laws and endless delays has been profoundly depressing.

Yesterday’s result, even if confirmed, comes too late to change that: in the permissive climate that Berlusconi created, a thousand more corrupt flowers have bloomed.

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