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|After Berlusconi, there’ll be no flood of chaos|
The Times - November 1st 2010
The streets of Rome are generally lovely at this time of year, yet now the air is carrying the strong, unpleasant smell of "la fine di un regno", or fin-de-regime, as we seem to say in English. Whether your preferred imperial image is of Nero fiddling while Rome burns or Julius Caesar fearing men with lean and hungry looks, the man whose reign is ending is Silvio Berlusconi, Italy´s prime minister for seven of the past nine years and its dominant political figure for 16 years.
It is time to wonder what might happen after the emperor falls. It might not be pleasant, as in times of yore when men wore blood-stained togas. But there is also a more uplifting possibility: that a new generation in Italian politics could break through and start a new period of reform. As a way to begin a year of celebrations for Italy´s 150th anniversary as a unified country, such an outcome could hardly be bettered.
This is, on the face of it, an odd conclusion to reach. Mr Berlusconi leads a coalition with a strong parliamentary majority, whose hold on regional government also increased in elections last March. He remains one of Italy´s richest men, and his control of the biggest commercial TV channels, of a large newspaper group and of the main news programmes on public TV give him a vast influence on what the public sees and reads. He is 74 years old but seems to be in good health.
Moreover, one of the chief explanations for his political dominance and longevity, the chaos and incoherence of the left-wing opposition parties, continues to be valid. A supposedly unified opposition, the Democratic Party, is deeply divided, and has a queue of people lining up to compete with their official leader, Pierluigi Bersani, for the role of prime ministerial candidate if general elections are called.
The reason why this apparent strength is misleading begins, naturally, with a sex scandal. The squalid details of this affair, which emerged during the past few days, need not detain us: suffice it to say that they involve a Moroccan teenager, generous gifts, wild parties at the prime minister´s mansion, and practices that he allegedly boasted of having learned from his friend Colonel Muammar Qadaffi, the dictator of Libya.
The specific allegations may or may not be true. The real significance of this affair lies in a different revelation: that when the Moroccan girl in question was arrested on charges of theft, the prime minister´s office telephoned the Milan police to plead on her behalf, claiming, inter alia, that she was related to Egypt´s president, Hosni Mubarak, and so deserved special treatment. That latter claim is not true, but in any case to have called at all is a clear abuse of power, potentially even a criminal offence.
More important for Mr Berlusconi´s allies, it is a clear lapse of judgment—which should be placed alongside his choice, displayed frequently in the past two years, of dallying with so many young women that some of them, at least, were bound to get him into trouble. Added to this weakness is his evident inability to protect or control his cronies, who have featured in a string of corruption scandals.
The result is that both his credibility and his support are crumbling. The support that matters most is not, unfortunately, that of the Italian public, though that too is ebbing away. What matters is the support of his political and business allies. His power is built not on mass popular votes, as he often claims, but on turning his roughly one-third share of the vote into a governing majority through alliances, chiefly with the anti-immigrant and nominally separatist Northern League, and with the ex-fascist supporters of Gianfranco Fini, a former foreign minister.
This was already weakening in the spring of this year, as corruption and sex scandals took their toll and as Mr Fini began to plan for a post-Berlusconi future by distancing himself from his old ally. Since then, that distancing has turned into open conflict, with Mr Fini breaking away and forming a new party. August, normally a quiet month in Italy, was instead a period of trench warfare inside the governing coalition.
In reality, the warring factions are playing for time—to build up their strength—and waiting for Mr Berlusconi to make a big enough mistake to give them an excuse to bring him down. The scandal involving the Moroccan girl could prove to be that mistake; the next few days will reveal whether or not it is. But even if it doesn´t, many political figures even on the centre-right appear to believe that the end is nigh.
What they also say is, first, that the result will be chaos, for the alternatives to Mr Berlusconi all look weak, and, second, that the prime minister will not give up easily. This second observation is surely true: he will fight hard, and dirtily, whether in or out of office. But the first observation is more questionable.
For the past year, I have been researching a book, which has just been published in Italian: it is called "Forza, Italia: Come ripartire dopo Berlusconi" (Come on Italy: how to start again after Berlusconi). Deliberately, its title steals back an Italian football-supporters slogan that Mr Berlusconi used for his first political party´s name, when he entered politics in 1994. The book is a look at Italy´s strengths, and how they might be unleashed by a truly liberal programme of reform.
What the research showed was the extent and breadth of pro-reform groups that have developed under the apparently sclerotic surface of Italian politics and society. The reaction to the book, and events coincident with it, have suggested, indeed, that some of those groups are now pushing their way to the surface.
Mr Fini has formed a mass movement called "Generation Italy". Next weekend, the youthful mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi (35, and one of the queue of budding left-wing leaders) is holding a mass rally called "Next stop, Italy", designed to muster support for a youthful overthrow of the old political guard on the left. Nichi Vendola, the charismatic, gay, ex-communist governor of the southern region of Puglia, has also formed a national movement.
"Il fine di un regno" can, it is true, bring chaos. The likelier immediate consequence, though, will probably be the formation of a centrist coalition, involving Mr Fini and other breakaway elements from Mr Berlusconi´s party, along with moderate elements of the left. But the deeper consequence will be the creation of a new opportunity. In 1994, when Mr Berlusconi swept into politics as an outsider from the business world, he changed Italian politics for the succeeding 16 years. Whatever you think of Mr Berlusconi, he did show that the political game could be changed.