Silvio Berlusconi defiantly vowed to stay at the center of politics on Wednesday despite his expected expulsion from parliament over a tax fraud conviction and accused leftist judges of perverting Italian democracy.
In a long awaited television address shortly before a Senate committee is expected to take the first step in expelling him, the media magnate made no mention of previous threats to bring down the left-right coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta because of the conviction.
"I will always be with you, at your side, expelled from parliament or not. It is not the parliamentary seat that makes a leader," the 76-year-old billionaire said. He called for center-right voters to rally behind the relaunched Forza Italia party, with which he first stormed into politics in 1994.
The supreme court last month confirmed a four-year jail term, commuted to one year, on Berlusconi for a giant fraud at his Mediaset television empire. He is expected to go into house arrest or do community service for up to a year.
But he rejected suggestions that he should give up his leadership of the center-right because of his removal from parliament and the restriction of his liberty. He called for Italians who loved freedom to "wake up, worry, rebel, become indignant, react and make yourself heard".
"The judiciary has transformed itself into a rival state power, capable of influencing the executive," he said.
Berlusconi wants to seize the initiative despite his conviction by replacing his current People of Freedom (PDL) party with Forza Italia to revitalize center-right voters and appeal to young people.
PDL secretary Angelino Alfano said on Tuesday his leader would make a final decision on the government's survival only after the Senate vote, where Letta's Democratic Party (PD), says it will support expulsion.
SENATE EXPECTED TO EXPEL BERLUSCONI LATER
The Senate committee on Wednesday night is expected to reject a recommendation by a senior PDL member of the panel, Andrea Augello, to confirm Berlusconi as a senator.
It will then elect a leftist replacement for Augello - there is an anti-Berlusconi majority in the committee - who will draw up a recommendation to expel him. That should be voted on by early October after which the case goes to the full Senate for a final decision expected by mid-October.
Political sources say Berlusconi appears to have listened to PDL doves, business allies and members of his family who believe sparking a crisis now could badly rebound on the center-right as well as damaging his media empire financially.
Italy is mired in its worst postwar recession and Berlusconi risks taking the blame for irresponsibly worsening the crisis if he provokes more instability over his legal problems. Polls show a large majority of Italians against snap elections.
The depth of Letta's problems was underlined on Wednesday when a government source said the finance ministry was considering delaying the target of a balanced structural budget from 2013 to 2014.
The euro zone's third largest economy is lagging behind many of its peers in climbing out of recession, partly because Letta's government is too divided to pass vital reforms.
PDL chamber of deputies floor leader Renato Brunetta said on Wednesday the coalition would collapse if the government hiked VAT sales tax, as a government source told Reuters it would probably do in October.