BAD DAYS FOR IL CAVALIERE

It's only January, and 2004 is already looking like a bad year for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The cancerous Parmalat scandal has roiled the Italian economy, and prosecutors warn they'll soon finger a handful of "high-ranking politicians" for suspected complicity in the case. The governing coalition is fracturing; Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini recently blasted his boss's opinions for being "as extreme in rhetoric as they are baseless in fact." Staggering transport strikes over the past two weeks have crippled cities, bringing thousands of anti-Berlusconi protesters into piazzas across the country.

Now comes news that the prime minister is no longer immune from prosecution--meaning that he will soon be back in a Milan courtroom facing corruption charges he thought he had escaped. (He stands accused of bribing judges to influence the sale of SME, then the state-owned food giant, in the 1980s. He's denied the charges.)

Last week's decision by Italy's constitutional court to overturn an immunity law that Berlusconi's tightly controlled Parliament rammed through in June is a sign of changing times. The Parmalat scandal, with its tales of corruption and illicit family-business intrigues, has cast an unflattering light on Berlusconi's dual role as a businessman and leader of his country. Italians who might once have respected "Il Cavaliere's" wealth and flair are now, with Italy increasingly viewed as something akin to a banana republic, yearning for a bit of discipline and international respect. Former prime minister Massimo D'Alema said gratefully of the ruling: "This demonstrates that we still live in a state of law. This is still a democracy--not a regime."

The judges did not issue their ruling until after Italy had completed its semester at the helm of the European Union, wisely avoiding the chaos and embarrassment that might have ensued had Italy's leader gone back to trial (and possibly been convicted) during his tenure as EU president. By this point, however, allowing him to escape prosecution altogether would have infuriated Italians angered by the gall of Parmalat execs. Ruling on his case, judges wrote that Berlusconi's political immunity "violates the principle that all citizens are equal before the law."

Berlusconi's once bright trajectory across the Italian political scene might now be likened to a slow train wreck. Investors, whose losses mount by the day, are alarmed by reports suggesting that Parmalat prosecutors have been hindered by legislation put in place by Berlusconi, apparently to cover his own assets. One such law decriminalizes accounting abuse. Fudging the books is now a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine no matter how large the fakery. Another bill barring the extradition of foreign financial records, also briskly passed by Berlusconi's supporters, makes it hard to track foreign transactions designed to conceal income and assets from prying eyes at home. Now Berlusconi is hinting at calling elections two years early, long before the oppostion will be prepared to even name a contender, as a last ditch effort to convince Italians he's still popular.

Italians' patience with such chicanery has worn thin. The government's last order of business in 2003 came from President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who, in a rare use of his veto power, quashed a so-called media-reform bill that clearly would have benefited the prime minister's own newspaper and television interests. Berlusconi didn't even get a decent Christmas break: he spent his three-week holiday at his Sardinian villa, La Certosa, battling violent protests against his business plans to turn a large swath of the island's pristine coastline into a tourist mecca--and reportedly nursing an eye-tuck by his cosmetic surgeon.

Berlusconi did not make his billions by negligent planning. When his trial resumes within the coming months, it will be heard by new judges and will take considerable time. The last case, after all, was suspended after three years of hearings. Coincidentally, a law recently passed by the Berlusconi Parliament shortens the statute of limitations on many white-collar crimes. That may win Il Cavaliere yet another reprieve, at least for now.