By Marzia De Giuli
MILAN, Italy, Oct. 26 (Xinhua) -- A number of question marks hovered on Italy's political future as Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in jail on Friday, two days after the former Italian prime minister announced he will not run for next year's elections.
The 76-year-old media tycoon, who was also banned for five years from public office and will have to pay damages provisionally set at 10 million euros (12.9 million U.S. dollars) to tax authorities, was found guilty by a Milan court along with other three defendants of tax evasion amounting to over 20 million euros (25 million dollars.)
The trial, started nearly six years ago, focused on broadcasting rights that Berlusconi's holding company Fininvest bought via offshore companies from groups in the United States for a total of 470 million euros (607 million dollars) in the 1990s.
Berlusconi, who can profit by a three-year remit on his conviction and has the right to appeal the verdict two times, defined the ruling "a political sentence incredible and intolerable, the evidence of an out-and-out judicial harassment."
The judgment came just two days after the four-term premier, accused in a number of official criminal and civil allegations since he entered public life in 1994, announced he will not run in elections scheduled for spring 2013 as the leader of his People of Freedom (PdL) center-right party.
The stepback, which was seen as an obvious move to avoid a probable electoral defeat, raised among local analysts the strategic question of which political forces the center-right electorate will turn to after considering Berlusconi its reference point over the past 20 years.
After his government was replaced last November by the emergency technocratic cabinet led by Prime Minister Mario Monti on the edge of a dramatic debt crisis, millions of Italians have lost confidence in the politicians' ability to lead the country.
A recent escalation of corruption scandals in the entire political spectrum has further strengthened the worries of local families who are struggling amid austerity measures carried out by Monti's government to tackle the crisis, and fear that his reforms will not be completed once he steps down.
Local pollsters showed most of Italians were undecided and planned not to vote, while millions of others have turned to comedian Beppe Grillo's grassroots Five Star movement, which is opposed to the present party system.
The option of a "Monti replay," which was greeted warmly by several economists and businessmen in Italy, has been also highly debated in recent weeks despite Monti himself repeatedly saying he will not run for a second mandate.
In this renewal process, which is considered fundamental for the destiny of the recession-hit country, Berlusconi's back step can further stimulate ferment and change in the distressed political world, said a noted political scientist Massimo Cacciari.
"Berlusconi's time was over," he said, adding the move in fact was positive for PdL whose leader in pectore, Angelino Alfano, will be able to search alternative alliances within the moderate center in contraposition to center-left Democratic Party (PD).
Vittoria Franco, a lawmaker of the PD, saluted Berlusconi's exit as the opening of "a new phase."
Fresh political strategies will give voters "the opportunity to evaluate the proposals and plans for Italy," she said.
A new electoral law, that is being held up by disagreements over the choice methods of MPs and the bonus that top-vote party will obtain in an effort to solidify a majority, is also expected to accelerate the breakdown of old political schemes.