Rehabilitated? Will Italy’s Oligarch Berlusconi return to run for office?

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MILANO, Italy – A court in Italy ruled on Saturday that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is eligible to seek public office again, almost five years after a conviction for tax fraud had left him unable to do so, which makes it possible for him to run again this year.

Milan’s Corriere della Sera newspaper reported that the Milan Surveillance Court took the decision after considering a request from lawyers for Berlusconi, 81, a media mogul who founded a center-right political party a quarter of a century ago.

Berlusconi gave “effective and constant proof of good conduct” after serving his sentence, court judges quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA said.

The decision means Berlusconi could seek a political recovery by trying for a fourth term as prime minister when the nation returns to the polls, which could happen in a matter of months.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella warned that if political leaders fail to form a viable coalition government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in March, he will install an interim head of government and determine a new election.

The ban on his search for or holding a public post should expire in 2019. But Corriere della Sera said the court ruled that Berlusconi had already been “rehabilitated.”

“Silvio Berlusconi can finally get back on the field,” said Mara Carfagna, party leader for Forza Italia. “The ‘rehabilitation’ of the Milan Court of Justice puts an end to judicial persecution and to a cavalry that has not overthrown the strength of great leadership, which, in a deeply altered political landscape, is still fundamental and central today.”

Milan Prosecutor General Roberto Alfonso said prosecutors had 15 days to decide whether to appeal the court’s ruling, something that will likely occur.

In October 2012, Berlusconi was found guilty of committing tax fraud as part of his vast business. Italy’s largest criminal court upheld its conviction the following year.

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A 2012 law stipulates that anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison is ineligible to hold or run for public office for six years, Berlusconi had to relinquish his seat in the Senate.

He had been sentenced to four years, but three were extirpated under an amnesty that aimed to reduce overpopulation in Italian prisons. The ban clock began to count with the appeals court ruling in 2013.

Berlusconi then had the option of serving the remaining time by providing community services. And he did this by helping residents in a facility who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Berlusconi was forced to stay out of the parliamentary elections this year. The March 4 election resulted in a legislature heavily divided into three factions, one of them a center-right alliance composed of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the anti-immigration party Liga.

But with Berlusconi ineligible to seek a fourth term as prime minister, right-wing voters made the League the largest party for center-right votes. For days, League leader Matteo Salvini has been trying to close a deal with a rival populist, Luigi Di Maio, whose 5-Star Movement has emerged as Parliament’s biggest party.

Di Maio, arriving in Milan for his latest negotiation with Salvini, told reporters that Berlusconi’s “rehabilitation” would affect the negotiation to form an “absolutely no” government.

During the campaign, Berlusconi discredited the 5-Star Movement’s Eurosceptics as “more dangerous than the Communists,” and he refused to support a coalition government with them.

Forza Italy’s votes would give the coalition an advantage in the votes of confidence required by Parliament for any new government. Salvini said Berlusconi in regaining his right to run as “good news for him – I am very happy about it – and, above all, good for democracy.”

President Sergio Mattarella said on Monday that if Italy’s tough political leaders could not form a government soon enough, he would appoint a non-political prime minister to govern by the end of the year at the latest.

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