Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and three-time prime minister whose center-right movement has dominated Italian politics for decades, was expelled from the Senate on Wednesday, marking the first time in recent memory he has not held elected office. For a man already convicted of tax fraud (the principle motive for his expulsion) and facing a litany of other charges — everything from paying for underage sex to bribing a member of parliament to switch parties — this is a game-changer, as Berlusconi will no longer enjoy immunity from prosecution, and could well find himself behind bars in the next year or two, impossible as that once seemed.
Furious attempts to rally conservatives around him to block the vote were futile, as dissidents — including his longtime protégé Angelino Alfano — insisted on supporting the centrist governing coalition Berlusconi tried to bring down, convinced they would be punished by voters for pulling the rug out from under an already-shaky government at a time of heightened economic anxiety and painful austerity programs. It would seem at least part of the calculation here was that new elections are unlikely to benefit the right, with Berlusconi’s woes dominating the conversation and center-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta earning plaudits from the editorial pages for bridging the partisan divide in favor of the national interest.
As for Berlusconi, it is too early to say he is finished in politics. Beppe Grillo, the leader of the left-wing insurgency Five Star Movement that has made a pastime of ripping Italy’s political elite, is barred from elected office because of a decades-old manslaughter conviction and yet remains a potent force. Given that he’s already begun the transition from serious officeholder to goofy political sideshow in recent years, it’s easy to envision Berlusconi remaining a coveted ally on the right, a man whose endorsement carries weight and whose personal fortune and influence in the media scene carry tremendous weight. Of course, recreational politicking is next to impossible from a prison cell, and that old friends have started turning their backs on him suggests Berlusconi’s brand of politics might be going out of fashion. He has reinvented himself many times before — and clearly intends to do so again, having recently rebranded his People of Liberty Party Forza Italia, the name he used at the beginning of his political career in the 1990s. What remains to be seen is if his toxicity as a symbol of corruption and avarice in the public square begins to outweigh any leftover viability as a conservative firebrand.