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Will Italy's sympathy for Berlusconi allow him to avoid corruption trials?

In Italy, sympathy for embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after a Dec. 13 attack could prove a useful means of dividing the opposition, rebuilding his popularity, and manipulating the judicial system.

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waves from his car as he arrives at his home in Arcore, Italy, Thursday.

Luca Bruno/AP

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After being sued for divorce by his wife, accused of corruption in two long-standing trials, and alleged to have slept with a prostitute at his palazzo in Rome, it seemed as though 2009 couldn't get any worse for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But just when things appeared to have reached a nadir for the charismatic, yet controversial leader, he was dealt another crushing blow – literally.
But far from being a setback, the attack he sustained last Sunday when a man with a history of mental illness smashed a cheap but hefty souvenir model of Milan’s famous cathedral into his face, could turn out to be an early Christmas gift.

Sympathy for Berlusconi in the wake to the assault, which left him with a broken nose and two cracked teeth, is expected to prove a useful means of dividing the opposition, rebuilding his popularity, and manipulating the judicial system in such a way as to avoid two trials in which he is accused of corruption, false accounting, and other corporate abuses. Many political analysts also say that the attack could have a chilling effect on free speech, and trigger a return to hyper-bitter politics in a country still marked by a battle between the Left and Right that dates back to World War II.

“I think the effect will be as much psychological as practical," says Prof. Christopher Duggan, a Mussolini biographer and the head of modern Italian history at Britain’s Reading University. "It is already very difficult for newspapers to be openly critical of the government because journalists fear for their careers, and sympathy for Berlusconi will make it even more difficult for his opponents to speak out.”

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