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Styles of the two Italys

Berlusconi pushes through a law that shortens the statute of limitations on certain crimes

What is Italy going to do with Silvio Berlusconi? At a recent gathering of foreign correspondents based in Italy- itself sharply criticized- in Paris, everyone agreed on one thing: the prime minister will never see the inside of a prison, though there are now four different judicial proceedings against him. Half the country is shocked at his nightly orgies, peopled with young (and apparently sometimes underage) girls, and a life that is far from conventional for a political leader. According to the WikiLeaks revelations, the US Embassy describes him as "incapable, vain [and] tired out by his parties and crazy nights." But it would be a mistake to believe that for these reasons he has lost all his popular appeal. This, in fact, is a story of two Italys.

On the 13th of this month, the Italian parliament enacted a law that shortens the period of prescription (statute of limitations) for crimes punishable by less than 10 years in prison, for those who have never previously been convicted. Thus the "Mills case," in which Berlusconi is facing trial under the charge of having bribed the British lawyer David Mills, which ought to have prescribed in autumn of this year, will do so in May, before the judicial proceedings have reached their end.

But this, in any case, was nothing new. Berlusconi has pushed through no less than 29 laws and rulings concerned with judicial immunity, by means of which he has avoided or emerged unscathed from 28 judicial proceedings against him. And the collateral damage of this new law- which will surely be ratified by the Senate- consists in the fact that thousands of cases will thus be shelved, and as many criminals go unpunished or victims left without reparations.

The Italian prime minister has run for election five times, winning on three occasions. He has never enjoyed a clear parliamentary majority, so that he has always needed the support of groups such as the radical-right party of Giancarlo Fini, which abandoned him last December, or the regionalist Liga Norte, with which his relations have always been turbulent. Half of Italy has seen in the business magnate's venal and expeditious style of government a salutary alternative to the ineffectual political haggling of the First Republic; but the other half, long before the leader gave grounds for the present accusations against him of juvenile prostitution in his midnight frolics, already abhorred the style of Berlusconi.

The rightist leader's long-term aim is to destroy the public image of the Italian justice system, and of the judges whom he terms the "cancer" of the Republic, who are supposedly conspiring to destroy him. And to this end he puts the parliamentary power above that of any court- at least, as long as he controls the parliament. How long this will be, will not be known until the next elections.