Discretion being the better part of valour, his troops deserting him, his bluff called, Silvio Berlsuconi decided to blink. The billionaire former prime minister and convicted tax fraudster who has dominated Italian politics for two decades embarked on a humiliating climbdown on Wednesday. His party, some 40 of whom had reportedly threatened to break ranks with him, would not now be voting against the government. Prime minister Enrico Letta chuckled as a sour Berlusconi intoned his surrender to parliament: “Italy needs a government that can carry out structural and institutional reforms which the country needs to modernise. We have decided, not without internal strife, to vote in confidence.”
In truth the 77-year-old had no choice but to retreat or face both a devastating political defeat in the vote and the disintegration of his People of Freedom party. “We are seeing the long twilight of the Berlusconi era,” political analyst Roberto D’Alimonte observes.
The Senate voted confidence in Letta by a remarkably comfortable 235-70, and Italy stepped back from the brink of what many were saw as a dangerous political and economic precipice – would that the US House would do the same! Letta appealed afterwards to deputies: “Italy needs there to be no more blackmail of the ‘do this or the government falls’ sort.” Obama would cheer to the echo.
The vote is good news for the whole eurozone from the most unstable of its large economies, a sign that the five-month-old centre-left coalition should be able to see through promised reform not only of the economy but of the electoral system.
The five ministers from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party whose resignation he announced on Saturday in a bid to delay his own expulsion from the Senate, and whose unprecedented public dissent from their master preciptated his volte face, remain members of the government. And now the breakaway party set to be launched by one of their number, Angelino Alfano, deputy prime minister and considered one of Berlusconi’s closest protégés, appears now to be on hold.
The humiliation for Berlusconi does not end here. On Friday a commission of the Senate will resume deliberations to strip him of his Senate seat over his August 1st tax fraud coinviction in relation to his Mediaset TV company. A court in Milan will soon rule on how many years he is to be banned from seeking any public office, again based on the tax conviction. And there are other cases in the pipeline.