Developing

Understated Berlusconi seeking statesman image

A loudmouth in elections earlier this year, Silvio Berlusconi has been understated since then, as he seeks a statesman-like image marked by his surprisingly muted reaction to a court ruling that upheld his conviction for tax fraud.

The ruling confirmed a four-year prison sentence and a three-year amnesty, leaving a one-year sentence that will not be served pending a second appeal by Berlusconi's defence lawyers.

Potentially more damaging for the senator is a five-year ban from public office that is also suspended pending an appeal ruling from Italy's top court expected later this year or in 2014.

The hope for the scandal-tainted Berlusconi is that the trial -- one of several ongoing cases against him -- will expire under a statute of limitations, which could happen in July 2014.

Legal pressure has intensified and prosecutors on Thursday said they were filing charges in a separate investigation alleging that Berlusconi bribed a left-wing senator to join his party.

The added complication is that Berlusconi's People of Freedom party won nearly a third of the vote in February elections and is now a key partner in a grand coalition government with leftists.

"We find ourselves in a difficult moment in history where national cohesion should prevail over demonising your rivals," Berlusconi said in an interview Thursday with Tgcom 24, a news channel owned by his Mediaset business empire.

He accused prosecutors of being "politicised and blinded by a prejudicial hatred that wants to have me banned and killed politically," he said.

But he added: "We will not be the ones to put the government in difficulty. These verdicts come at a crucial time in which we are trying to drag Italy out of its difficulties with a collaboration with the (leftist) Democratic Party that is not easy."

In calculated contrast to Berlusconi's measured tone, heavyweights from his People of Freedom party have lined up to weigh in against the tax fraud ruling although most were also at pains to stress it would not affect government stability.

"Berlusconi is falling in love with his new role. He has become the shareholder of reference in the government," said Marcello Sorgi, a political columnist for the La Stampa daily.

Although he is not in the cabinet, Berlusconi holds a lynchpin role in the government's survival.

He could trigger new elections by pulling his party out of the government, although some analysts say such a move could put off his electorate and encourage left-wingers to join forces.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement party, which effectively brought about the right-left government by refusing to ally with the left, has upped the anti-Berlusconi rhetoric in recent weeks.

Its leader, former comedian turned firebrand Beppe Grillo, said Wednesday's ruling should encourage parliament to banish Berlusconi forever.

"In any other democratic country, a character like Berlusconi would be in prison or far from any public office. In our country, he is the balance point of the government," Grillo said on Thursday.

Stefano Folli, columnist for business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, said there was "a new Berlusconi".

"Berlusconi has every interest in taking on the mantle" as a statesman, Folli said.

Sorgi added: "The Cavaliere is watching with bemusement the contortions of his former rivals turned allies" -- a reference to the deep divisions inside the Democratic Party.

Another test will be an ongoing trial in which Berlusconi is accused of having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute when he was prime minister and abusing the powers of his office by pressuring police to release her from custody.

That trial will resume on Monday and a verdict is expected later this month. Berlusconi faces a sentence of up to 12 years in prison.