A controversial law granting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi legal immunity has been dramatically thrown out by the country's top court, raising the likelihood that the media mogul will again face prosecution on corruption charges.
As the political pressure mounted last night, the 73-year-old premier lambasted the Constitutional Court judges as "red toga-wearing tools of the left" and vowed not to quit, despite predictions by opponents that the ruling could force him to resign and hold a snap election. "We must govern for five years, with or without the law," Mr Berlusconi told reporters outside his residence in Rome.
"I'll take time out from taking care of state business to go and make liars of them all. These things fire me up, they fire Italians up. Long live Italy, long live Berlusconi!"
Former anti-corruption judge Antonio di Pietro, now head of the Italy of Values party, called on Mr Berlusconi to "stop making laws for his personal use and step down".
But in a provocative warning before the court's ruling was made public, Umberto Bossi, Mr Berlusconi's coalition partner and rabble-rousing leader of the Northern League, said: "If the court throws out the law we could go into action, mobilising the people."
Mr Berlusconi has long maintained that he is the victim of a vendetta by left-wing magistrates. One of his first acts upon beginning his third term in office 17 months ago was to introduce the "Alfano" law, exempting him and other top office-holders from prosecution. This is the law which yesterday's ruling strikes down.
The most immediate legal threat Mr Berlusconi now faces is the re-opening of the corruption case in which he was accused of giving British lawyer David Mills, the estranged husband of British Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, a bribe of $600,000 to lie in court about overseas slush funds for his television empire. The Prime Minister could also face prosecution in two other cases, one for tax fraud and false accounting in the purchase of TV rights by his Mediaset group, the other for trying to corrupt opposition senators. Mr Berlusconi denies all the charges.
James Walston, professor of international relations at the American University of Rome, said: "He's still got a huge majority in parliament, so he could seek to complete his mandate." But he added: "It's possible he might resign and try to persuade the President to call elections." But one respected opposition figure, the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, said the verdict "could be catastrophic and create a very delicate situation in our country, with Berlusconi hardly able to go on as if nothing had happened".
Mr Berlusconi remains popular, but he has spent much of the year fighting scandals about his personal life, concerning parties with prostitutes and dalliances with young starlets, which have damaged his standing, particularly among Catholic voters.
Other experts predicted that the verdict – added to his sagging poll ratings – made it even less likely that he would introduce the reforms generally deemed necessary to revive Italy's sclerotic economy.
"Berlusconi was already a lame duck because of the scandals. Now he will be less inclined or able to focus on reform," said Tito Boeri, an economics professor at Milan's Bocconi University.
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