Berlusconi postpones message on future after tax conviction

Reuters
PDL leader Silvio Berlusconi talks with reporters as he signs a referendum on justice reforms and human rights in downtown Rome
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People of Liberty party (PDL) leader Silvio Berlusconi talks with reporters as he signs a referendum …

By Barry Moody and Paolo Biondi

ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has postponed until Wednesday an announcement likely to steer away from moves to bring down the government following his tax fraud conviction, political sources said.

The media magnate, known for sudden changes of mood, had been expected to issue a video message to Italians on Tuesday on the resurrection of his original center-right political party, Forza Italia, or Go Italy.

The party was the vehicle with which Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire, stormed into politics in 1994 after a bribery scandal swept away the old post-war order in Italy.

Political sources said Berlusconi, 76, was expected to step back in his message from weeks of threats to sink the right-left coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta if the Senate votes to expel him from parliament over the conviction.

Sources in Berlusconi's current People of Freedom (PDL) party, which replaced Forza Italia in 2008, said the pre-recorded message would now be transmitted on Wednesday, just before a Senate committee is due to take a preliminary vote.

Some political sources said the master communicator wanted to avoid being upstaged by the successful raising of the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner from rocks off the Tuscan coast on Tuesday.

The supreme court handed a new rebuff to Berlusconi on Tuesday, ordering his Fininvest holding company to pay damages of 540 million euros ($721 million) to the CIR firm owned by the family of his arch rival Carlo De Benedetti.

The fine was awarded over a disputed takeover battle for publisher Mondadori. Berlusconi's former lawyer was convicted in 2007 of bribing a judge to rule in favor of Fininvest.

Analysts suggested Berlusconi may want to include the judgment in his message on Wednesday, which will come a few hours before a Senate committee is expected to reject attempts to block his expulsion from parliament over the tax conviction.

Berlusconi supporters railed against the judgment. A close ally, PDL chamber of deputies floor leader Renato Brunetta, said the ruling showed "the recurrent surgical timing" with which leftist judges sabotaged Berlusconi.

Berlusconi appears to be using the revival of Forza Italia to regain the political initiative following his conviction for a giant fraud at his Mediaset television empire, for which he faces either a year's house arrest or community service.

CONCILIATORY LINE

If he sticks to a conciliatory line on Wednesday, it will signal the victory of party doves and business advisors who have tried to undermine the efforts of hawkish Berlusconi supporters to push him towards forcing snap elections.

Il Giornale newspaper, run by Berlusconi's brother, suggested the tycoon was taking a more conciliatory line towards Letta's government, an uneasy coalition of the PDL and the premier's center-left Democratic Party (PD).

Libero, another daily close to Berlusconi, said he would announce that "as far as he is concerned the government can continue".

After weeks of debate, party doves, relatives and leaders of his business empire have apparently persuaded him that torpedoing the government in the midst of Italy's worst post-war recession would misfire for the center-right.

A source close to Berlusconi said some of his oldest advisers, including veteran political consigliere Gianni Letta and close business aides, were united in advising him not to provoke a crisis that would severely damage his media empire.

His eldest child Marina, 47, was also pushing to avert a crisis which could misfire for Berlusconi and the $6.6 billion business empire she now heads. Of his five children from two marriages, only Pier Silvio, his 44-year-old son, was supporting the position of the hawks, the source said.

European economics commissioner Olli Rehn told Italy's parliament on Tuesday that continuous threats to torpedo Letta's government were holding back vital investments.

(Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi; editing by Angus MacSwan and Paul Taylor)

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