Sound of Hallelujah and popping corks greets Berlusconi's departure


To compare the day to the end of the Franco regime in Spain, or to that of Salazar in Portugal, might be an exaggeration, but only a mild one

“WILL YOU please move aside there, I can’t see and I tell you I have waited 17 years for this moment and I want to see it well,” said the middle-aged woman to me.

Outside the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome on Saturday night, they were getting ready to party. Thousands of people had turned up for arguably the most symbolic moment on an historic day, namely the resignation of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has dominated Italian political and public life since 1994.

To compare the day to the end of the Franco regime in Spain, or to that of Salazar in Portugal, might be something of an exaggeration, but only a mild one.

After all, depending on your viewpoint, Berlusconi is “The man who screwed an entire country” as the The Economist put it last June. Problem is that, in recent days, he had become the man who almost screwed an entire euro zone.

It would be comforting to report that Berlusconi finally decided to step aside last week as an act of responsibility to his compatriots and EU partners.

Commentators suggest, however, it was a phone call from Ennio Doris, chief executive of his Mediolanum bank, that finally changed Berlusconi’s mind. Resign now, Silvio, he allegedly advised or if this market slide continues, you will have nothing left to leave to your children. Remember, shares in Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV empire have fallen by 51 per cent since January.

At the Quirinale, the crowd were not interested in just why Berlusconi has resigned. Rather, in Doubting Thomas mode, some of them wanted to see for themselves that he actually would resign. Others were there out of a sense of relief, while many had clearly come to celebrate, ready to pop their bottles of prosecco, just the moment they received official confirmation that, after 3,336 days at the Italian helm, Berlusconi had indeed resigned.

The protest even had a musical side to it with a couple of Roman choirs, complete with small orchestra, giving several renditions of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Even if the atmosphere was a party one, it also soon became clear that a majority of those present wanted to express their anger with Berlusconi.

“Mafioso”, “Buffoon” and “Go to prison” they chanted as the arrival of his car, complete with heavy escort, prompted an avalanche not only of insults but also of coins and even a pair of lady’s knickers. As the crowd surged forward, it looked for one moment as if the police presence would not be able to contain them. In the end, and with commendable prudence, the police advised Berlusconi to leave the presidential palace by a side entrance, in the interests of avoiding any further confrontation.

The protesters, however, did not abandon the piazza at that point. Rather, they moved on to Berlusconi’s private residence of Palazzo Grazioli, partying in the street outside through to three in the morning.

Throughout the night-long vigil, too, the crowd regularly sang both the Italian national anthem and a series of partisan songs such as Bella Ciao.

If Berlusconi had looked out his window on Saturday night, he would have seen a series of placards that would not have done much for his already funereal mood. “November 12th, Liberation Day”, “Italy Is Free”, “Game Over”, “Bye Bye Silvio Party” and “Go Home, Go Home” were just some of the more polite offerings.

Earlier, Berlusconi had experienced just about the only comforting moment on a miserable day when his arrival in the Lower House chamber for Saturday’s debate on the austerity budget, which had preceded his resignation, prompted an immediate standing ovation from his People of Freedom (PDL) party deputies.

As the PDL deputies got to their feet, chanting “Silvio, Silvio” in the manner of football fans, a grim-faced Berlusconi raised his arms in thanks.

There was the sense that the chants of “Silvio, Silvio” were a desperate cry from his deputies, many of whom are unlikely to be re-elected at the next election, probably in a year’s time.

However, even if his closest supporters dearly want to believe that the 75-year-old media tycoon has not yet left the political stage, many commentators would argue that this time the end has indeed come: “Today, the final curtain comes down on a long and painful period of Italian political life . . . ”, said opposition deputy leader, Dario Franceschini in the opening words of his speech to the Lower House.