by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) -- As a parliamentary debate begins Monday over the fate of Silvio Berlusconi's Senate seat, things could hardly look worse politically for the three-time Italian prime minister.
But despite being hounded by legal woes and facing a one-year house arrest, many veteran Italian watchers warn that there are risks to counting out the billionaire media tycoon. Bankers, ratings agencies, and even some foreign leaders, said Italy would still be dominated by Berlusconi's influence, albeit dramatically reduced.
Five weeks ago, Italy's Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling in a trial for tax fraud and false accounting, resulting in the year of house arrest and requiring the lower court to "reconsider" the ban from politics originally assigned to the verdict.
In the meantime, parliament decided to hold its own vote on whether to strip Berlusconi of his Senate seat, a move that would rob him of an official political platform from which to influence policy.
Until recently, it appeared Berlusconi had a trump card that would influence the vote - his opposition to the housing tax IMU.
He has long opposed the tax and called for its retraction. If it wasn't, it could have provided him with an ideal excuse to withdraw the support of his allies from the Enrico Letta government, forcing it to collapse. However, on Aug. 28, Letta unveiled a plan to phase out the IMU this year -- robbing Berlusconi of that key issue.
"The way things are now, if Berlusconi's supporters pull their backing for the government, it would look like cold political opportunism," said Omar Esposito, a European politics expert specializing in Mediterranean countries. "That could severely damage their chances for future electoral success."
But regardless of the outcome of parliament's debate, many others say Berlusconi is far from finished.
"Don't forget he has the backing of around one in four Italians," said Maria Rossi, the co-director of the polling firm Opinioni. "That could shift a little, but his minimal support levels are generally reliable."
"More importantly, he still controls the three Mediaset networks that were the basis of his political start 20 years ago and his greatest strength since then," she continued. "And no Berlusconi-backed campaign will ever hurt for money."
Depending on parliament's decision, Berlusconi could lose his platform for addressing lawmakers and voting on legislation directly.
Beppe Grillo, one of Berlusconi's most bitter critics, is a comic and activist who formed the five-star movement, which finished in a near three-way tie with the parties now headed by Berlusconi and Letta in February's national elections.
Interestingly, the influence of Grillo's bloc in parliament could actually go far in guaranteeing the continued relevance of Berlusconi's supporters, whether Berlusconi is in parliament or not.
The groups of lawmakers allied with either Grillo or Berlusconi are so large that it is impossible for Letta to hold a majority without one or the other, and Grillo has made it clear he has no intention of supporting one of the traditional parties.
Grillo, who was convicted of manslaughter in the 1980s and so cannot hold public office, has no seat in parliament. Yet that has not stopped him from acting as a field general to his forces in the legislature. It is possible Berlusconi's role could evolve along those lines.