Berlusconi loses his appeal

Judges have rejected his appeal against a four-year jail sentence - commuted to one year under an amnesty.

Former Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Picture: AFP.

ROME - For two decades Silvio Berlusconi seemed teflon-coated, untouched by dozens of court cases and scandals, dominating political life and becoming Italy's prime minister four times.

But on Thursday, judges finally caught up with the flamboyant 76-year-old when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal against a four-year jail sentence - commuted to one year under an amnesty.

It ordered a review of a five-year ban from public office for tax fraud but the ruling was nonetheless a devastating blow that could at last signal the political twilight of Italy's greatest showman.

Berlusconi is Italy's longest-serving prime minister, who's known for his irrepressible off-colour humour, his facelifts, perennial tan, make-up and hair weave.

He says he has been systematically persecuted by leftist magistrates bent on perverting democracy since he stormed into politics as a new force in 1994 after a massive bribery scandal swept away the post-war political order.

One of Italy's richest men, whose self-made image is a big part of his appeal, Berlusconi has a business empire including construction, media and AC Milan football club. He has made a career of confounding pundits who repeatedly counted him out.

But this time his chances of bouncing back look slim, despite his supporters' insistence that he will continue to lead his centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.

He is expected to serve the jail sentence under house arrest or doing community service and even though the ban on holding public office is under review, his ability to exploit his campaigning and communication skills will be severely limited.

Berlusconi has failed to groom any strong successor and there is speculation his oldest daughter Marina, 46 and chairwoman of his Fininvest holding company, will become the PDL figurehead.

The ruling has huge implications that go way beyond the impact on Berlusconi himself, and could seriously endanger Italy's uneasy left-right coalition government.

DEPLETED CHARISMA

Berlusconi looked down and out for much of 2012 after a scornful crowd hounded him from office in November 2011 as Italy came close to a Greek-style debt crisis.

But he was suddenly energised after precipitating the fall of his successor, in December last year. Diving into the campaign, he once again showed unrivalled mastery of communication and ran rings round his lacklustre rivals on the left and centre.

He came within a whisker of success, losing to the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) by less than one percent.

He joined a coalition with centre-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta and appeared to be thriving, with the PDL topping opinion polls - until his legal troubles caught up with him.

In June he was sentenced to 7 years in jail for abusing his office and paying for sex with the Moroccan-born nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, alias "Ruby the Heartstealer" when she was under age.

The case splashed allegations of lurid "bunga bunga" orgies at Berlusconi's villas across the newspapers, finally alienating some of his most loyal conservative supporters.

His wife Veronica left him in 2009, accusing him of consorting with under age women and he was ordered to pay her a settlement of 100,000 euros a day.

But the mogul has two appeals before that conviction becomes effective. Thursday's case is much more serious now that the verdict is final.