Monday, 14 November 2011

Arrivederci, Silvio

I always imagined myself dancing around the Colosseum (or somewhere at least!) the day Silvio Berlusconi left office. I thought it would lead to Italy's biggest celebrations since it won the World Cup; men, women and children alike taking to the streets to rejoice. The mood in Rome, however, could not be much gloomier. Not that many are mourning his departure, but Italy’s situation is so bad that no-one really feels like celebrating.

In my view, society is in an even worse state than the economy. I’m not going to do an impression of a Tory and talk about 'the economic mess left by the last government' - I’ll be the first to admit that the budget deficit that exists in Italy was built up over several decades and is just as much down to what is a global financial crisis as because of Berlusconi’s governments. It's the likely lasting impact of Berlusconismo and what he’s done to how women are seen, for instance, that I fear has done more permanent damage.

His TV channels where women are seen but not heard are here to stay, as are perceptions he has created of gay people and immigrants as inferior. He’s done nothing to fight the mafia but be accused of collaboration and have key aides like Marcello Dell'Utri condemned to 10 years in prison for complicity with the Sicilian Mafia yet never serve jail time because of Berlusconi-designed loopholes in the legal system, which he spent more time meddling with than he spent managing the economy.

It's a bit like how it's often said Thatcher has won and that her greatest achievement was that Labour had to move away from socialism to return to power. It will be hard to reverse half the damage Berlusconi has done, and – unlike in Britain in 1997 – there’s not even an opposition party anywhere near ready or popular enough to take over, even if a centre-left leader was (like Blair with Thatcher) prepared to accept some things Berlusconi had done. All the left-leaning parties remain divided and – even with Berlusconi’s popularity reported at an all-time low 19% – far too disliked to win an election. Only one party wants one and feels it’s strong enough to do well, and that’s Berlusconi’s former coalition partners, the right-wing extremist Lega Nord (Northern League) movement that wants virtually a complete halt to immigration and to split Italy in two, leaving the considerably poorer South separated from where the money and their supporters lie in the North.

Berlusconi's not even gone yet. New PM Mario Monti, a former EU Commissioner and well-respected economist, seems a decent guy. He probably is; but he’s not nearly as powerful as the man he’s supposedly replaced. Berlusconi has said he 'won’t surrender' and will be 'interested' to see what reforms Monti makes: 'only then will I decide whether to support the new government or not'. The threat is not so much implicit as explicit. Berlusconi’s party still has the most MPs in Parliament: Monti will struggle to pass legislation without it. Berlusconi is clearly saying something along the lines of 'Cut what I want you to cut and my MPs will back you. Raise taxes or go anywhere near the legal system and they won't'. So much for Silvio’s 'responsible gesture' of resigning, as he called it in an interview broadcast simultaneously on every one of his channels on Sunday.

Would you ever have a UK Prime Minister try to continue to exert influence and wield power after leaving office? Did Blair stick around after he stood down and try and get Brown to continue with the same reforms? Even Thatcher knew when her time was up and left swiftly.

'Arrivederci', the Italian for goodbye, literally means 'until I next see you'. I fear we might see Silvio somewhere near the top again. It’s long been rumoured that he fancies a crack at becoming Presidente della Repubblica (President of the Republic). It’s traditionally been a figurehead role, and currently remains so under Giorgio Napolitano (frequently cited as the politician Italians have most trust in). Imagine Berlusconi there, though. Can you envisage him sitting back, respecting the role's limitations and leaving the constitution alone? Even if he doesn't manage to become President, or – God help us – Prime Minister again, he'll still be there under the scenes or at the very least will have a lasting impact on Italian politics and Italy as a whole.

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