ROME: Italian lawmakers on Monday began hearings to decide whether Silvio Berlusconi should be expelled from parliament following his criminal conviction in an unprecedented case that has stoked political tensions.
Berlusconi’s defiance over the possible sanction is unique in Europe’s recent political history and threatens the coalition between his People of Freedom (PDL) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
As the eurozone’s third biggest economy struggles to exit a recession that has led to record unemployment, the 76-year-old former prime minister and billionaire tycoon has once again taken the political centre stage.
A Senate committee on Monday held its first meeting to discuss the issue, even though stalling tactics from Berlusconi’s supporters could drag the process on for months before a compulsory final Senate vote.
The meeting began with a lengthy statement in Berlusconi’s defence by PDL senator Andrea Augello who questioned the validity of a new law adopted last year with the aim of cleaning up Italian politics.
“We have to judge on the basis of the law and not on political prejudice,” Lucio Malan, also from the PDL and one of 23 senators on the committee, said.
Benedetto della Vedova from the centrist Civic Choice party, said: “We are not here to eliminate someone. We just have to decide whether this law applies or not.”
Berlusconi has complained that the law, intended to rid parliament of criminals and approved with votes from his own party, in fact violates his rights.
The three-time premier has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that the law should not apply for convictions relating to crimes committed before its adoption, as in his case.
The law would also prevent Berlusconi from taking part in the next general election set for 2018 when he would turn 82.
The PD’s leadership has said it will vote to apply the law but the PDL argues that Berlusconi should receive “political freedom of movement” since he leads a party for which millions of Italians have voted.
Some of Berlusconi’s critics have pleaded with him to resign voluntarily and spare Italy more embarrassment.
PD leader Guglielmo Epifani has warned that Italy risks looking like a “banana republic” internationally.
Nichi Vendola, leader of the leftist SEL party, said the case is “unique for a Western democracy.”