End of the road for Italy's great political survivor?

 

ANALYSIS:Silvio Berlusconi has come through several crises in his career, but, facing two confidence votes today, this time things are different, writes PADDY AGNEW

‘ONE IS left with some very obvious and negative conclusions. Namely, that the Italian electorate’s vote is that of a people who, fundamentally, do not believe in democracy, in meritocracy. The electorate’s vote is that of a people who believe instead in clientelism, in the single powerful figure who will save the country, in the concept of government as power-broking rather than effective administration.”

Your correspondent wrote those words in March 1994 by way of comment on the astonishing overnight general election success of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

To the non-Italian eye, it was hard to share the appeal generated by a much-discussed millionaire entrepreneur who not only owed much to his friendship with the disgraced Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi but who, arguably more importantly, controlled half of the country’s commercial TV market. Would you want Rupert Murdoch as your prime minister?

Clearly not everyone in Italy did vote for Berlusconi in 1994, nor indeed have the majority always voted from him during the past 16 years, a period during which he has lost two general elections to centre-left leader Romano Prodi. Clearly, too, there are many Italians who do indeed believe in democracy and who would dearly love to see Italy become a meritocratic society.

At the same time many people voted for Berlusconi and continue to vote for him because they argue that there is no real alternative. The centre-left, even with Prodi trying to run the show, has consistently proved itself to be a rattle-bag of discordant opinions.

But are we on the eve of another momentous change in Italian politics? With 74-year-old Berlusconi due to face two parliamentary confidence votes today, has the Great Communicator come to the end of the road?

For months now, commentators and opposition politicians alike have spoken of the “end of Berlusconi”, indicating that even Silvio Houdini will not get out of this one.

Really?

Since he came to power in 1994, Berlusconi has taken Italians on a helter-skelter ride punctuated by allegations, accusations and court trials; mafia collusion, money laundering, bribery of judges, bribery of tax inspectors and business fraud are just some of the charges that have been levelled at him. His supporters like to point out that he has incurred no serious conviction on this judicial odyssey.

Opponents argue that this is only because the statute of limitations has come to his rescue. The prime minister himself has helped his cause with a series of ad personam laws that attempt to guarantee him immunity while in office.

Former investigating magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, now leader of the opposition Italy of Values (IDV) party, puts it this way: “The businessman under investigation has two options really. He can go to the magistrates, come clean and admit it all or he can go on the run. Berlusconi, however, came up with a third way. His solution was to found a party, enter politics and then pass legislation which ensured the he could never be put on trial.”

All of the above, however, has never undermined Berlusconi’s popularity. Furthermore, opinion polls suggest that if the current crisis is to be resolved with a general election, he may well again top the ballot. The charisma of the “strong man” may work again, even if more and more Italians worry that indeed he has been ineffective during his last eight years in office, seemingly preoccupied with his own (judicial and business) problems.

Berlusconi has been typically dismissive of his opponents throughout this crisis. Even he, however, must acknowledge that this time things are different. For his present problems are almost entirely due to the fact that his long-time ally, the man with whom he founded his current People of Freedom party (PDL), namely Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the lower house, has attempted a palace putsch by breaking with Berlusconi and calling for him to resign.

Fini now argues that Berlusconi is in politics only to save his own hide and that furthermore the prime minister’s judicial history, unorthodox after-hours lifestyle and unfailing ability to be utterly politically incorrect all bring shame on Italy.

The cynic might argue that it has taken

Fini and his supporters quite some time to come to this realisation. Sources within Fini’s new Future and Liberty (FLI) party argue, however, that things have got worse over

the last two years. Berlusconi supporters counter that Fini is motivated only by personal ambition.

Be all that as it may, two tight votes are expected today with Berlusconi seemingly risking most in the lower house. Most commentators argue that, even if Berlusconi wins today but does so with a much reduced majority of one or two votes, then he is in trouble. For one thing, his other long-time ally, the federalist Northern League, will then urge him to resign in expectation that the only viable next step will be an early general election.

This will bring us back to the thing that Berlusconi does best – electioneering. We almost certainly have not seen the end of the politician Silvio Berlusconi yet.


Paddy Agnew is Rome Correspondent