Foreign Policy Blogs

Berlusconi does it again

Italian politics is always colorful, especially so when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is involved. His latest move gives an ironic twist to corruption fighting.

Berlusconi has been accused of everything from womanizing to mafia links, but to date he has mostly slithered out between the fingers of the law. One current trial accuses him of tax fraud. To avoid such charges in the past, Berlusconi’s government passed an immunity law that shielded him. But last fall the constitutional court struck down the immunity, leaving the prime minister open to attack once again. He has complied, but insisted that he has a right to be in court for every hearing, something that may be inhibited by “legitimate impediment” (i.e. government business). And what government business prevented him from appearing in court for his tax fraud trial on Monday? Passage of an anti-corruption law.

Several major corruption cases have surfaced in Italy recently, including a scandal over public contracts that allegedly benefited a businessman with ties to intelligence, police, and parliament. The draft law, which has not been finalized, would set up a corruption watchdog and ban anyone convicted of graft from running for office.

Italy has a reputation for more corruption than its EU neighbors, and not just because of the mafia. It ranked more poorly than such scandal-ridden places as Turkey and South Africa in the last Corruption Perceptions Index, and it placed 17 out of 22 top exporting countries in the Bribe Payers Index. But to date, the Italian people have been more than easy-going about the missteps of their leaders.

Such complacency is dangerous. At a time when Britain is trying to improve its already mostly clean record and the Greek president has identified graft as a root cause of that fellow euro-member’s financial crisis, Italy cannot afford to pretend that corruption can exist peacefully alongside functional institutions. Italy needs more than just a new anti-corruption law; it needs to hold its top politicians to account. And we all know who has the biggest finger pointed at him.

 

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