ROME – Prosecutors in Naples said Thursday they had opened an investigation into media tycoon and former -- and possibly future -- Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on allegations he paid an opposition senator to change sides and trigger a collapse of the government that allowed Berlusconi to return as prime minister for the third time.
Berlusconi is now seeking to become prime minister for the fourth time: After voting in Italy closed Monday, it was revealed that Berlusconi, pre-election favorite Pier Luigi Bersani and comedian and activist Beppe Grillo each finished with blocks of votes too small for them to form a government without allying with one of the others. But all three groups have sworn off collaborating with the others.
Bersani was rebuffed in an attempt to form a coalition with Grillo’s forces, and many commentators are now predicting a grand alliance between Bersani and Berlusconi.
In 2006, with former European Commission President Romano Prodi as Italy’s prime minister, the government faced a crucial confidence vote. Naples prosecutors say Berlusconi paid opposition senator Sergio De Gregorio €3 million ($3.9 million) to switch sides and join Berlusconi’s party. He did, and the Prodi government lost its confidence vote. Though Prodi was able to regroup and reform a government, his position was weakened, and he resigned in 2008, with Berlusconi taking over soon after.
There have already been charges of vote buying in the latest Italian political imbroglio -- though on a wider scale. Prosecutors in Reggio Emilia, near Bologna, have opened an investigation into Berlusconi’s campaign promise to return to tax payers an estimated €4 billion ($5.2 billion) collected as part of a controversial property tax last year. A complaint from two local citizens' group charged the promise constituted a kind of vote buying.
Berlusconi’s appeal of a conviction on tax fraud in connection with the acquisition of broadcast rights for his Mediaset television and cinema empire is about to start (Berlusconi was sentenced to four years behind bars in the case five months ago), and he is also being tried for illegally taping and releasing the contents of a confidential phone call with a political rival and for abuse of power and paying an underage girl for sex.
It remains unclear whether this latest round of allegations will hinder Berlusconi’s chances of striking up an electoral alliance with either Bersani or Grillo.
Berlusconi’s Mediaset owns three national television networks in Italy and one in Spain, the Medusa film production and distribution house, and several print media.