Leading article: Berlusconi and his battles

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The Independent Online

With characteristic braggadocio, Silvio Berlusconi recently declared himself Italy's best prime minister since unification. But that did not cut any ice with Italy's Constitutional Court, which this week overturned a law, passed by Mr Berlusconi only last year, granting him immunity from prosecution while in office.

This opens the door to at least two court cases against the Prime Minister, including one for corruption. Mr Berlusconi's response was to accuse the judges responsible for the ruling of being "red toga-wearing tools of the Left".

They do politics differently in Italy. Decades of political corruption and weak governments made Mr Berlusconi seem like a breath of fresh air when he first won power 15 years ago with his Forza Italia political party. Italians were willing to live with the fact that their new Prime Minister owned a vast media empire. At least, many reasoned, his wealth would mean that he would not need to take bribes. They were also willing to overlook his clownish, occasionally offensive, behaviour on the world stage, if it meant stable government at home.

This year the Prime Minister has even survived personal allegations of sleaze that would have brought down leaders in just about every other European country. Despite lurid revelations about the Prime Minister's sexual escapades, Forza Italia gained the largest share of the vote in this year's European elections.

Yet Mr Berlusconi's once healthy poll ratings do seem to be on the slide. Prominent figures in the powerful Catholic Church have criticised his behaviour. And this constitutional crisis threatens to paralyse the government at a time of painful recession. Though Mr Berlusconi yesterday promised to fight on "with or without the law", the reality is that his future now lies in the hands of his coalition allies. If they decide they are better off without him, no amount of bluster will keep him in office.

It would be foolish to write Mr Berlusconi off. He has proved his resilience many times in the past. But it is possible that even Italy's "best" ever leader might find it impossible to fight on so many fronts at the same time.

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