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Berlusconi paper moots plan for directly elected president

October 13, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, published on FT on 13 October 2009

Amid much speculation over Silvio Berlusconi’s next moves following the stripping of his immunity from prosecution, Il Giornale, his family-owned newspaper, yesterday proposed a change to the constitution that would pave the way for the 73-year-old prime minister to run for election as head of state.

Mr Berlusconi’s term does not expire until 2013 and he has repeatedly declared that he intends to remain in office until then, despite months of publicity over alleged sex scandals and the prospect of two trials resuming against him.

However, Il Giornale, which played a key campaign role in his first election victory in 1994, yesterday fuelled long-running speculation that the billionaire prime minister would seek to cap his career with a move into a presidency given enhanced powers.Vittorio Feltri, editor, proposed that the government change the constitution – through an act of parliament followed by a national referendum – that would require the head of state to be elected directly by the people rather than by parliament as at present.

His front-page editorial, while noting Mr Berlusconi’s popular support, did not specifically suggest that he should be a candidate. The daily proposed Italy become a “presidential republic”, an idea that in the past has enjoyed support both from the left and right to bring Italy closer to the French presidential system. Mr Berlusconi has frequently complained that Italy’s prime minister does not enjoy sufficient executive powers.

Giorgio Napolitano, 84, was chosen as president by the previous centre-left dominated parliament in 2006. As matters stand, his successor would be chosen by the next parliament that emerges from elections due in early 2013.

Last week, when the Constitutional Court rejected a law passed by Mr Berlusconi’s government giving him immunity, the prime minister lashed out at both the courts and Mr Napolitano, a former communist, as being leftists arrayed against him.

Other newspapers, including Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, speculated that Mr Napolitano might ask Mr Berlusconi to step down should he be found guilty next year in one of trials, even before the appeals process is exhausted. Some analysts saw the editorial in Il Giornale more as an effort to undermine the head of state rather than replace him.

Mr Berlusconi says he will defend himself in court. He has rejected as “absurd” charges that he bribed David Mills, his former UK lawyer, to give false testimony; and that he was involved in fraud in the acquisition of television and film rights by Mediaset, his company.

Newspapers reported that, apart from constitutional changes, the government was considering other ways to help Mr Berlusconi, including shortening the statute of limitations in an effort to ensure the courts ran out of time to prosecute him. Such a move is not included in current government proposals to reform the judiciary.

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