By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO and GAIA PIANIGIANI
ROME — Italy’s highest court revoked automatic immunity for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday, a move that could restart three criminal cases against him and further jeopardize his tenuous hold on power. After meeting for five hours, the 15-member Constitutional Court ruled that the prime minister and his cabinet could still be granted temporary immunity in any cases against them, but only if presiding judges agreed to delay hearings while the politicians were in office.
Mr. Berlusconi, who is 74 and has dominated Italian politics for most of the last two decades, has repeatedly said that he has no intention of stepping down, whatever the court’s ruling. On Thursday, his office refused comment. Analysts said the threat that Mr. Berlusconi could find himself back in court created new uncertainties just a month after he narrowly survived a no-confidence vote.
The ruling adds to the climate of “instability and insecurity within the majority and a quickening of the pace to early elections,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the School of Government at Luiss University in Rome. But supporters and independent analysts said that even if detractors took advantage of the court’s ruling to push for early elections, Mr. Berlusconi, a wily political survivor, could well win against the country’s fractured opposition.
Marcello Veneziani, a conservative commentator, called the decision a “moderate shock.” But he said that early elections, if they occurred, would be “a referendum between Mr. Berlusconi and no alternative, so a vote would probably affirm his power.” The country’s focus will now switch to Milan, where the three cases against Mr. Berlusconi could proceed. The judges in those cases will need to determine whether the prime minister’s official duties constitute a “legitimate impediment” to being present in court. Previously, under a law passed in March, judges had to accept such claims without question and delay trials.
In one case, Mr. Berlusconi is accused of bribing David Mills, a British corporate lawyer who had worked for him, to withhold testimony. In another, he is charged with tax fraud and embezzlement connected with the purchase of broadcast rights by Mr. Berlusconi’s Mediaset broadcasting company. He has not yet been formally charged in the third case, which also involves Mediaset.
The court decision could also further stoke tensions between the judiciary and the prime minister, who has repeatedly accused the legal system of trying to subvert the democratic process by drumming up illegitimate accusations against him. Mr. Berlusconi once called himself “the politician most persecuted by prosecutors in the entire history of the world throughout the ages,” and said that he had spent 200 million euros, or about $270 million, in legal fees and consultations.
On Thursday, Mariastella Gelmini, the education minister, said that the ruling “didn’t resolve anything,” and that Mr. Berlusconi “remained the object of a persecution on the part of some politicized prosecutors’ offices.” But critics say that Mr. Berlusconi has repeatedly passed laws to protect and further his personal interests. The latest ruling was the third time in seven years that the Constitutional Court has ruled on laws shielding Mr. Berlusconi from prosecution. In the first two cases — in 2004 and 2009 — the court ruled that earlier laws on immunity breached the clause in the Constitution that states that all citizens are equal before the law.
It was unclear how the latest ruling would affect the statute of limitations in Mr. Berlusconi’s various cases. In some earlier instances, charges against him were thrown out because they dragged on too long. The most recent law, which expires in October, granted only temporary immunity, suspending trials for a maximum of 18 months. It was intended as a stopgap measure as Parliament debates changes to the Constitution that would make it more difficult to bring government officials to trial.
But with Mr. Berlusconi struggling to unite his center-right coalition, it seemed unlikely that he would be able to cobble together the two-thirds majority required in both houses of Parliament to push through the constitutional changes. Mr. Berlusconi was re-elected in 2008. But a split last year with the co-founder of Mr. Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, has greatly reduced the prime minister’s room to maneuver.