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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 December 2004, 09:45 GMT
New spring in Berlusconi's step
By Tamsin Smith
BBC News, Rome

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Things seem to be looking up for Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi probably doesn't carry his own suitcase.

But if he did, then arriving in Washington this week with the extra baggage of a criminal conviction would surely have made him a less welcome White House guest.

However, last week's decision by a court in Milan to clear the Italian prime minister of serious corruption allegations now means he travels much lighter to meet his friend George W Bush.

And if a shadow of doubt still lingers over one charge of bribing a judge, shelved on procedural grounds, then that can be tucked away neatly in the side pocket of a suit carrier.

Less easy to fold away is the verdict from a court in Sicily that convicts one of the prime minister's closest friends and business colleagues of collusion with the Mafia.

Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, a co-founder of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, was sentenced to nine years in prison, although he plans to appeal.

These corruption allegations simply won't even register with the Americans
Roberto Menotti, Aspen Institute
A little embarrassing for a government currently pledging to fight the current outbreak of mafia violence in Naples blow by blow.

But Mr Berlusconi has always dismissed the allegations against his friend and told members of his party: "I wouldn't put one hand in the fire for him - I'd put both in."

The fallout from these tortuous legal cases is by no means international, especially as Mr Berlusconi can completely dust off the worst of the allegations.

"These corruption allegations simply won't even register with the Americans," says Roberto Menotti from the Aspen Institute in Rome.


The backlash of all this legal turmoil is domestic, political and pretty vindictive.

For the opposition left wing it is a chance to cry foul play in the case of the Berlusconi verdict, and the Dell'Utri decision shows that the Berlusconi government is full of bad eggs.

For the governing centre right, justice has been done to clear the prime minister, and poor Senator Dell'Utri is the victim of foul play and machinations.

The voters, somewhat weary of years of court cases, are pretty much indifferent.

What they want their prime minister to deliver are economic results, fast.

Since the European elections in summer, Mr Berlusconi has been sliding in the polls, blamed by many for Italy's wheezing economy.

'Looking up'

His recent coup de grace was to secure a tax cut for all, despite the lack of money in the state coffers, and the EU fiscal rules breathing heavily down his neck.

Outrage from the opposition over this move has paradoxically allowed the prime minister to paint his rivals as those who really want to increase taxes.

He has also been helped by the fact that the opposition alliance led by former European Commission president Romano Prodi is struggling to even agree on a common name.

"Things are definitely looking better for Mr Berlusconi," says Renato Manheimer, a leading political scientist and pollster.

"People have more trust in him, although their voting intentions haven't changed. If there were elections tomorrow, then the centre left would win. The turning point for the government will be January and whether people think their pay packets are heavier."

Bush payback

Italy's billionaire prime minister is already in ebullient mood. He has just given the go-ahead for the production of what promises to be a rather saccharin soft focus film of his life, all image-building ahead of the next elections.

Immediate domestic economic priorities will be on his mind in Washington, where he may try to eke out a commitment from Mr Bush on the economy.
US President George Bush
Berlusconi is also likely to have the ear of George Bush

Although the solution is bigger than Mr Berlusconi, he can at least be seen to appeal for a stronger dollar on behalf of the Europeans to safeguard US-EU trade ties.

He is also in the favourable position of being an important ally for Mr Bush right now.

With the third-largest contingent of troops in Iraq, along with peacekeepers in Afghanistan, Mr Berlusconi can claim quite rightly that now more than ever he has the ear of the American president.

This may also mean that the Italian voice is heard when it comes to reform of the UN and ensuring that the EU is given a seat on the Security Council, rather than just Germany.

"Mr Berlusconi has a strong hand to play right now," says Roberto Menotti.

"I think that he can easily propose a rotating membership system rather than permanent members, and what's important is that right now he will be listened to."

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