Circus Maximus rally gives Berlusconi thumbs down


ON A glorious, sunny Roman October afternoon, hundreds of thousands of Italians took to the streets of the Italian capital on Saturday to stage an anti-government protest, organised by the main opposition party, the Democratic Party (PD), writes Paddy Agnew

While it is unlikely that the protest will impinge much upon the policies of the Silvio Berlusconi-led centre-right government, it may be that Saturday's rally will signal a revival in the fortunes of the PD, who have been relatively quiet since a comprehensive loss to Mr Berlusconi's Freedom Party in last April's general election.

"Italy is much better than the right that is governing it now but another Italy is possible and we'll do it together. Democracy, Mr prime minister, is not a company board," said PD leader Walter Veltroni, who argued that Mr Berlusconi was not the man to lead Italy in this moment of worldwide economic flux.

As always on occasions like these, the march prompted a huge difference of opinion about numbers.

While the PD put the attendance at 2½ million, Rome police authorities claimed that the crowd was much smaller, at between 200,000 and 300,000.

Whatever the final number, the protest did manage to fill the suggestive surrounds of the Circus Maximus, originally used by ancient Romans for chariot racing.

The march came against a background of growing unrest spearheaded by the daily protests of high school and university students strongly opposed to the government's cost-cutting proposals for education.

Even though some polls currently give Mr Berlusconi a 62 per cent rate of voter approval, his centre-left critics accuse him of pushing the country ever more to the right through the introduction of tough measures on petty crime and illegal immigration.

Critics of Mr Berlusconi also point to the fact that he has again used his time in office to promote legislation (the so-called "Lodo Alfano") guaranteeing the suspension of judicial proceedings against the holders of the four highest offices in the land.

During his last term of government, 2001-2006, Mr Berlusconi attempted to introduce similar legislation only for it to be thrown out by the Constitutional Court.

Earlier this month, thanks to the Lodo Alfano, Mr Berlusconi was removed from the list of defendants in a Milan court case in which he is accused of paying a $600,000 (€475,000) bribe to British lawyer David Mills in 1997 in return for favourable testimony.

The case against Mr Mills, however, goes ahead.

Among those attending Saturday's meeting was the former magistrate Antonio di Pietro, leader of the Italy of Values party, who used the occasion to gather signatures for a referendum proposing the abrogation of the Lodo Alfano.

Speaking from Beijing during a visit to the People's Republic, Mr Berlusconi seemed little worried by the protests, saying that he was glad that the sun had shone for his opponents.

He added: "At the very moment of crisis when we ought to be united, they take to the streets against the government.

"They show themselves for what they are, unfortunately that's the type of left we have.

"A whole generation will have to pass away before we have a democratic left in Italy."