In any other democracy, a senior politician’s definitive conviction and sentencing to jail for tax fraud should signify automatic resignation and the end of his career. But Italy is not a normal democracy, and Silvio Berlusconi is not a normal politician.
Certainly the verdict handed down by the Court of Cassation in Rome marks the darkest moment yet for the former Prime Minister. Approaching 77 years of age, he is unlikely to go behind bars. But the man who led his country for more than nine years now faces a spell of house arrest or community service. Cue well-practised rails against a judicial bias from Mr Berlusconi and indications that even now he will not go quietly. It is vital for Italy that he does.
At first, Mr Berlusconi’s political ascent, after the collapse of the old Italian political order in the gigantic corruption scandal of the early 1990s, aroused hopes that his business acumen might breathe new life into a stagnant economy. But over the years his antics – both public and private – have on occasion turned Italy into a laughing stock, while the country’s economic problems have only worsened.
The question now is whether the precarious coalition led by Enrico Letta, which depends on Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, can survive. The odds are that it will stagger on, if only for want of an alternative. But this extra lease of life has been made possible – probably deliberately – only by the court’s order for a review of rules that otherwise would ban the former Prime Minister from public office on the spot.
But even this is a sideshow. The overriding priority for Italy is structural reform, to boost competitiveness and create opportunity and jobs, coupled with an overhaul of the country’s paralysing constitutional system. Only then will the eurozone’s third-largest economy get back on its feet. Mr Berlusconi’s greatest service would be to withdraw from public life entirely. But he remains a polarising figure, with a devoted, if dwindling, following. Even now, most probably, la commedia non è ancora finita.