Ella IDE

Silvio Berlusconi’s acquittal for having paid relations with an underage dancer leaves him a free man, but can the former premier claw back his political power and return to the top?

The media magnate was celebrating Wednesday after Italy’s top court quashed once and for all accusations that he had paid for having relations with a starlet nicknamed “Ruby the Heart Stealer” at his infamous “bunga bunga” parties.

“Finally the truth. Today is a beautiful day for politics, justice, the rule of law,” Berlusconi, 78, said in a statement, adding: “I am back in the field, to build... an Italy that is better, freer and fairer.”

The ex-premier’s lawyer Franco Coppi had told the court that while “not even the defence team is denying acts of prostitution took place” at Berlusconi’s raunchy dinner parties and hot-tub sessions, it was all above board.

The judges agreed the self-proclaimed Latin lover had no idea the buxom pole dancer was just 17 at the time. While some commentators said the billionaire would now be gearing up for general elections expected to be held in 2018, analysts cast doubt on his chances of resuming a heavyweight role in Italian politics.

“Berlusconi is still Berlusconi, and is always able to surprise,” Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at Rome’s John Cabot University, told AFP.

“From a legal point of view he is free to take to the field again, but what remains to be seen is whether he has the physical strength. The years are passing and he is giving signs of slowing down,” he said.

Berlusconi has just wound up a community service order for tax fraud and still faces accusations of bribing a senator for political gains and paying off witnesses in the Ruby case.

These are thought unlikely to prevent him from trying to spearhead opposition to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reform plans, though his centre-right Forza Italia is fragmented and he faces leadership challenges.

‘On his political deathbed’

Rising star Matteo Salvini, 42, head of the anti-immigration Northern League party, has an eye on Berlusconi’s throne and hopes to win over voters who are losing faith in the ex-premier, who has failed to name a viable successor.

“Salvini has nothing to fear from a man who is, by now, on his political deathbed,” said Marco Tarchi, political science professor at Florence University. Polls put Salvini well ahead of Berlusconi in terms of popularity.

While Pavoncello said Berlusconi might try to join forces with Salvini to form a new alliance on the right, Tarchi said “Berlusconi’s time is up, even if he and his allies refuse to realise it.” He may pick some fights with Renzi, particularly with regional elections looming in May, but the media magnate is unlikely to want to unseat the government and spark early elections.

His tax fraud sentence saw him banned from public office for two years starting in 2014. He is also subject to a 2012 law banning convicted MPs from running for office for six years, thoughBerlusconi is appealing that ruling in the European Court of Human Rights. In any case, three years after completing his tax sentence Berlusconi will be able to request his slate be wiped clean, Italian media reports say, meaning that he could run for a fourth stint as prime minister - if he can hold on until 2018.

But political watcher Giacomo Marramao from Roma Tre University says the AC Milan football club owner is more worried about protecting his business interests - and in any case has undermined his chances of a return by bedding prostitutes.

“He has lost the trust of the Italian electorate, not by having lovers but having indiscriminate relations with prostitutes which leave him vulnerable to blackmail,” he said.

“Who knows how many of these women have been privy to inside details of Italian or international politics?” Marramao said, noting that the tycoon is allegedly still buying the silence of some of the party girls with apartments and gifts.

With that and his other legal problems hanging over his ageing shoulders, Berlusconi “may be ready to fight a few battles” but from now on he is likely to be little more than “an elderly father” to the right, Marramao said.–AFP