Berlusconi promises to stay in politics

Berlusconi called for centre-right voters to rally behind the re-launched Forza Italia party.

Former Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Picture: AFP.

ROME - Silvio Berlusconi defiantly vowed to stay at the centre of Italian politics on Wednesday despite his expected expulsion from parliament over a fraud conviction, and accused leftist judges of plotting against him to pervert democracy.

In a long-awaited television address shortly before a Senate committee took a first step towards expelling him, the media magnate made no mention of his 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 centre-right voters to rally behind the re-launched 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, for a giant fraud at his Mediaset television empire. Berlusconi is expected to go into house arrest or do community service instead of going to jail.

On Wednesday evening, fellow senators voted down a move by his party colleagues to try and prevent his looming ejection from the upper house of parliament - paving the way for what is expected to be his formal expulsion by the end of next month.

Berlusconi seemed to be resigned to being forced out parliament but said he would not give up his leadership of the centre right, calling for freedom-loving Italians to "wake up ... rebel, become indignant, react and make yourself heard".

He said he was "absolutely innocent" of tax fraud, and the judiciary had "transformed itself into a rival state power, capable of influencing the executive".

"They want to get rid of me by judicial means because they have been unable to do so with democracy," said Berlusconi, who was also ordered by the supreme court on Tuesday to pay almost half a million euros to a business rival over a disputed takeover battle.

Berlusconi wants to seize the initiative despite his conviction by replacing his current People of Freedom (PDL) party with Forza Italia to revitalise centre-right voters and appeal to young people.

He promised "less state power, less public spending, less taxes. With the left in power it would be the opposite."

Berlusconi did not mention the government, but PDL secretary Angelino Alfano has said his leader would make a final decision on its survival only after the vote in the Senate, where Letta's Democratic Party (PD) says it will support his expulsion.

A Senate committee dominated by his adversaries rejected a technical motion by the PDL to confirm Berlusconi's membership of the chamber. That prompted a walkout by centre-right members.

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. Opinion polls show a large majority of Italians against snap elections.

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.