Court rules Italy's Berlusconi can run for office again

ROME (AP) — A court in Italy has ruled that former three-time Premier Silvio Berlusconi is eligible to seek public office again, nearly five years after a tax fraud conviction sidelined him as a candidate and amid political gridlock that could result in a second national election this year.

Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Saturday that Milan's Surveillance Tribunal made the decision after reviewing a request from lawyers for the 81-year-old Berlusconi, a media mogul who founded a center-right political party a quarter-century ago.

Berlusconi gave "effective and constant proof of good conduct" after carrying out his punishment, Italian news agency ANSA quoted the tribunal judges as concluding.

The development means Berlusconi could seek a political rebound by pursuing a fourth term as premier when the nation next returns to the ballot box, which could happen in a matter of months.

Italy's president has warned that if squabbling political leaders fail to form a viable coalition government following an inconclusive parliamentary election in March, he would install a caretaker head of government and seek another vote.

The ban on his seeking or holding public office was due to expire in 2019. But Corriere della Sera said the tribunal ruled Friday that Berlusconi already had been "rehabilitated."

"Silvio Berlusconi can finally return to the playing field," Mara Carfagna, a leader of the ex-premier's Forza Italia party. "The 'rehabilitation' by the Milan Surveillance Court puts an end to a judicial persecution and a cavalry that didn't chip away at the strength of great leadership, that, in a profoundly changed political scenario, is today still fundamental and central."

Milan Prosecutor General Roberto Alfonso said prosecutors have 15 days to decide if they will appeal the tribunal's decision.

In October 2012, Berlusconi was found guilty of committing tax fraud as part of his vast business dealings. Italy's highest criminal court upheld his conviction the next year.

Because a 2012 law stipulated 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 Senate seat.

He had been sentenced to four years, but three were shaved off under an amnesty aimed at reducing crowding in Italy's prisons. The clock on the ban started running with the appeals court decision in 2013.

Berlusconi then had the option to serve out the remaining time doing public service. He did so, helping residents at a facility for Alzheimer's patients.

Berlusconi bitterly complained he was treated unfairly, since the 2012 law took effect after the tax fraud. The European Court of Human Rights is expected to rule this year on his appeal of the law's application to him.

Thus sidelined, Berlusconi was forced to sit out this year's parliamentary election. The March 4 election resulted in a legislature sharply divided into three factions, one of them a center-right alliance made up of Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the anti-migrant League party.

But with Berlusconi ineligible to seek a fourth stint as premier, right-leaning voters made the League the center-right's biggest vote getter. For days now, League leader Matteo Salvini has been trying to hash out a deal with a rival populist, Luigi Di Maio, whose 5-Star Movement emerged as Parliament's largest party.

Di Maio, arriving in Milan for his latest bargaining session with Salvini, told reporters who asked if Berlusconi's "rehabilitation" would affect the dealing to form a government, "absolutely no."

During the campaign, Berlusconi disparaged the euroskeptic 5-Stars as "more dangerous than communists," and he has refused to back a government coalition with them.

Forza Italia votes would give a Salvini-Di Maio coalition an edge in the required confidence votes in Parliament for any new government.

Salvini hailed Berlusconi's regaining his right to run as "good news for him — I'm really happy about it — and above all, good for democracy."

President Sergio Mattarella said Monday that if Italy's bickering political leaders can't form a government soon, he would appoint a non-political premier to govern until the end of the year at the latest. That scenario would bring another election years ahead of the 2023 due date.

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