Berlusconi protestIn spite of all his billions and his control of Italy’s media, there is a growing sense that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—the one-time cruise ship crooner— is finally headed for a fall. Two of his ministers and a senior treasury official were forced to resign over corruption charges, and the investigation may soon engulf Berlusconi himself.

The corruption investigation netted three of his closest associates, including the Neapolitan politician and Treasury undersecretary Nicola Cosentino; banker Denis Verdini, a major figure in the Prime Minister’s People of Liberty Party; and Senator Marcello Del’Utri, a former executive in Berlusconi’s media empire.

The three are accused of setting up a cabal of politicians and wealthy businessmen aimed at influencing judges to reverse the Oct. 7, 2009 ruling by the Constitutional Court that a law passed by the Berlusconi-dominated legislature, immunizing the PM, the president, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament from criminal charges, violated the principle that all Italians are equal before the law. The court ruling means Berlusconi faces charges of tax fraud, bribing judges, and paying his English lawyer to lie in court.

A wiretap caught the three men talking about the scheme and referring to someone at the center of the conspiracy by the code name “Caesar.” Berlusconi denies he is the “Caesar.”

Right. This is the Prime Minister who fancies himself a reincarnation of ancient emperors, holds rallies near Rome’s huge coliseum, throws lavish parties filled with prostitutes, under-age girls, and naked people a-la Nero, and has the most to gain from a reversal of the ruling by the court. Silvio “Caesar”? Perish the thought.

Actually “Benito” is probably a better moniker. Berlusconi has praised the fascist leader Benito Mussolini on more than one occasion, and his People of Liberty Party was formed by merging his Forza Italia Party with the neo-fascist National Alliance Party (NAP). The NAP’s leader, Gianfranco Fini, currently speaker of the house, used to give the stiff-armed fascist salute at party rallies. Berlusconi’s other ally is Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, an openly racist party that provides the winning margin for Berlusconi in the upper house.

There is a strong odor of the Mafia around all this. Dell’Utri, the senator from Naples, was convicted of “associating” with the Mafia, a conviction recently upheld on appeal. Indeed the press is calling the “gang of three” nailed by the wire taps, “P3” after the 1980s P2 scandal that linked Masonic lodges to fascist groups, the Mafia, and Italy’s military intelligence agency, the SID.

Up to now Berlusconi’s wealth from his $6.5 billion holding company Fininvest, and his domination of the media—he controls Italy’s three most watched television channels (sports, soaps and cleavage), plus the public channel RAI though his command of the government—has protected him and his friends. But no longer.

In fact, the current crisis feels much like the early ’90s when “tangentopoli” (“bribesville”) tanked the First Republic. The current P3 scandal could well bring down the Second Republic.

Most observers think that Berlusconi will call a snap election this next spring, because, while his popularity is dropping, he still gets favorable ratings from many Italians. But his troubles are not all of the legal variety. Italy’s economy is in serious trouble and growth has been less than 1 percent a year since 2000. Of the G7 countries, only Japan has seen a greater loss of Gross Domestic Product. Factories are idled and unemployment hovers at around 8.6 percent, though that figure is much higher in the poorer south.

Referring to the “gang of three” resignations, Ezio Mauro, editor of the left-leaning newspaper Repubblica, told the Financial Times, “The ghost ship of the Berlusconi government is throwing corpses into the sea to survive.” But it is not clear that the Left can take advantage of the situation. It is fractious and has yet to put forth a unified program.

Berlusconi announced July 16 that he was canceling his plans for a summer vacation in order to work on reorganizing his People for Justice Party. But as investigators continue to burrow into the charges of tax evasion and bribery, and the corpses of his associates pile up around him, the three-time Prime Minister may soon find himself on permanent holiday.

Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

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