Inside Italy

Save the premier or save everyone?



After an initial period of dialogue between government and opposition, relations have become strained. Walter Veltroni of the Democratic Party (PD) has declared the period of cooperation to be over. Disagreements have broken out over the government’s plan to limit the use of wiretapping which is far more common in Italy than in any other Western country. But the biggest dispute concerns a proposed judicial measure which the centre-left claims is tailored to save Silvio Berlusconi from prosecution.


The decree envisages the suspension for a year of trials for alleged crimes committed before mid-2002. There are exceptions for violent or organized crime offenses or crimes punishable by prison terms of at least 10 years. The opposition regards this measure as self-serving since it would affect a trial in Milan where Berlusconi is accused of ordering a payment in 1997 to his co-defendant, the British lawyer David Mills, for false testimonies at Berlusconi trials in the 1990s. Both Berlusconi and Mills deny these charges.


The former judge Antonio di Pietro who is now a member of the opposition attacked the measure saying that "Berlusconi is allergic to justice." Other exponents of the centre-left have joined his criticism dubbing the proposed legislation a “save-the-premier” decree.


Berlusconi has responded that he is not seeking any personal privileges in the judicial arena and that the measure is a way of making the judicial system more efficient in general. According to him, the  issue not “save-the-premier” but “save everyone”. He asserts that the proceedings against him are politically motivated and that his opponents try to bring him down through judicial abuse because they cannot beat him at the ballot box.


But for the opposition the “save-the-premier” legislation marks an opportunity to deflect from the internal problems it is still facing after the lost general election in April. The comfortable victory for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party triggered off some disputes within the opposition PD over future strategy and its natural home among European parties as either socialist or liberal democratic. The controversy about the “save-the-premier” decree has enabled the PD to attack Berlusconi in person without having to join a debate about policy. The centre-left’s attempt to refocus its attacks on the prime minister’s judicial problems may however turn out not to be especially effective. Over the years, Silvio Berlusconi has faced a variety of trials and accusations but his overall popularity was hardly affected.


What is most remarkable about the debate is its excessive focus on the Mills/Berlusconi trial in Milan. Judicial reform in Italy is a most urgent matter and the legislation should be judged on its alleged ability to make the justice system more responsive and capable of handling serious trials more quickly. According to estimates by the National Association of Judges the measure will affect the temporary suspension of 100,000 trials while the ministry of justice believes that the number is much higher.


The basic problem is that trials in Italy, including those involving high-level crime, often face enormous delays. Whether the proposal to temporarily suspend trials of lower-level crime is adequate to deal with this phenomenon is debatable, but no one can doubt that speeding up the system is a matter of high priority. Berlusconi has thus defended the measure as a way of tackling hard crime more effectively.


The government’s plan to reduce the number of wiretaps is also related to addressing the judicial crisis. Over the last couple of weeks Italian newspapers have reported that the use of wiretapping in the country is five-times higher than in France, twenty-times higher than in the UK and fifty-times higher than in the United States. But the excessive application of wiretaps does not necessarily make the country safer. At the same time, however, it consumes about 30 per cent of the judicial budget. The government plans to restrict wiretaps to those activities like organized crime and terrorism where they are strictly necessary. Most opposition politicians maintain that the practice is also needed in areas such as public administration and the health-care sector.


Efforts to reform the judicial system should be undertaken both by the government and the opposition. This is one area where a cross-party consensus is especially desirable. It is therefore unfortunate that the tender plant of dialogue wilts just when it is most needed. The opposition will have to abandon its habit of using debates about judicial matters to attack Mr. Berlusconi without offering clear alternatives on how to cope with the worrying state of Italian courts.


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