“Silvio Berlusconi is dead. He is at the end of the road. One of his greatest fears now is ending up in prison.”
Italy’s centre-left has long wanted to write the political obituary of its implacable enemy of the past 20 years, but at the end of a tumultuous week which saw a humiliating parliamentary retreat by the former prime minister, this instead was the judgment of one of his most faithful allies.
Speaking outside the new headquarters of their centre-right party in central Rome, the member of parliament, who asked not to be named, was among a score of “loyalists” who met Mr Berlusconi in his apartment on Thursday night following a dramatic split in their party that saved Enrico Letta’s left-right coalition government from collapse.
“Very depressed, saddened and not very lucid” was how she described the 77-year-old billionaire, although she said the tears reported in the press were more theatre than real.
Two days after party “moderates” forced Mr Berlusconi to abandon his efforts to bring down Mr Letta’s government, the former prime minister was dealt another blow on Friday when a senate committee voted to recommend his expulsion from parliament on account of his conviction for tax fraud imposed by Italy’s supreme court in August. The final decision rests on a vote by the full chamber which could come by the end of the month.
The “loyalists” who sought out Mr Berlusconi on Thursday night were not there to seek counsel from the man who had led them to three election victories. Instead they delivered a declaration, signed by about 100 centre-right MPs, of their intention to leave Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty (PDL) and re-establish a “liberal” Forza Italia (Go Italy) under the banner of the first party he founded in 1994. Mr Berlusconi was invited to join them.
“It was an ultimatum,” the centre-right MP said. “This was the week that began the post-Berlusconi era.”
Should it materialise – and Mr Berlusconi on Friday was still appealing for party unity – then the breakaway would confirm the biggest schism in Italy’s centre-right since the collapse of the Christian Democrats and the postwar order in the early 1990s.
Mr Berlusconi issued a statement condemning the committee’s decision, saying it violated his rights and “strikes at the heart of democracy”. He said the vote stemmed from the “clear aim of using judicial means to eliminate a political rival whom they had failed to defeat through the democratic means of the ballot box”.
Between 70 and 90 “doves” grouped around Angelino Alfano, deputy prime minister and ringleader of this week’s revolt against Mr Berlusconi, would be left behind, either to stay in the PDL or form their own new party.
Mr Alfano, the PDL secretary once seen as Mr Berlusconi’s heir apparent, has yet to declare his intentions. Even while comparing him to the Brutus who knifed Caesar outside the senate or to Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ, the new Forza Italia says it would open its door to him, but only in a diminished role. The hawks have already identified a new secretary – Raffaele Fitto, 44-year-old former governor of the southern region of Puglia, who is appealing against a court conviction for corruption and illegal party financing.
Many on the left like to say that Mr Berlusconi, who set a record as Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister, will not be politically dead until he is actually buried.
But after his stunning last-minute climbdown in the senate on Wednesday, Mr Berlusconi’s authority has been left in tatters.
“I have never seen such an incredible mess in the same party,” said Giovanni Orsina, history professor at Rome’s Luiss university. “For the first time the PDL has gone against its leader. This is a political turning point.”
Allies say Mr Berlusconi made his U-turn to save the party from splitting. Party insiders suggest he relented under pressure from executives managing his business empire, including Marina, his eldest daughter.
Following his conviction for tax fraud, Mr Berlusconi still has further to fall and may have to wait years before he can contest another election. Regardless of his eviction from the senate, a Milan court is due on October 19 to set the term for his ban from holding public office, from one to three years.
Mr Berlusconi will also soon start serving his one-year sentence for tax fraud under house arrest or through community service.
Expulsion from the senate is not just humiliating. Stripped of immunity, Mr Berlusconi fears that a judiciary he condemns as politically biased could arrest and jail him in connection with other pending cases, including a conviction for paying for sex with an underage prostitute, and an investigation into suspected bribery of a former centre-left senator.
Mr Berlusconi’s demise has clearly strengthened the hand of Mr Letta. A poll by Tecne found that 59 per cent of Italians saw the prime minister as the real victor this week. Only 22 per cent gave credit to Mr Alfano.
The threat of destabilising elections has been averted for this year at least and Mr Letta is in a stronger position to set the terms of the 2014 budget under budget deficit constraints demanded by Brussels.
But there are rumblings of discontent from those on the left in his party who fear Italy is returning to its Christian Democrat past. Mr Letta began his own career in that party, as did Mr Alfano and several other ministers. Centre-right “moderates” round Mr Alfano also owe their allegiance to Communion and Liberation, a conservative Catholic organisation with big business interests.
No strangers to political theatre, Italians are not convinced that stability lies ahead. Asked by the Tecne poll if they believed the political crisis had been resolved this week, more than 88 per cent said “no”.