Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Prodi's Won

After a nerve-wracking 24 hours, the votes are finally all counted and there is a definitive result. Silvio Berlusconi is out. The center-left coalition under Romano Prodi has scored a slim victory over the conservative leader Berlusconi, thanks to the new expatriate voting blocks Berlusconi himself created.

Berlusconi is one of the most controversial leaders in Europe. His time at the helm of the EU presidency (they have a rotating presidency where each country assumes it for a period of time) was colossally embarrassing for the continent, and his hard-line tactics and cult of personality have failed to solve Italy’s economic woes while inching the country further and further to the right. Berlusconi has been Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II and many Italians only support him because they’re afraid that dumping him would plunge Italy back into the political chaos that has dogged the country for 50 years.

Berlusconi's rise to and hold on power is all very 21st century. Berlusconi is an Italian media mogul who controls an empire of private TV stations and other media outlets, and has used them to spread his own propaganda. He stages annual cult-of-personality party conventions and uses his TV stations to beam a Reaganesque message of smiling conservatism into the living rooms of Italian voters. For a comparison, imagine Rupert Murdoch as president of the United States. His opponents see him as a bully, using his confrontational style to silence his political opponents and maintain an iron grip on power. He is a steadfast ally of President Bush and brought Italy into the Iraq war despite the overwhelming disapproval of the Italian public.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride the last day in getting to this election result. The polls were open for two days, and the race saw an 86 percent turnout (I suspect that if we also had our polls open on a Sunday and Monday we’d be able to increase the US’s dismal election turnout, which is 50% for a presidential election and an unbelievable 37 percent for midterms. But I digress). At first exit polls indicated a clear victory for Prodi’s coalition in both chambers of Italian government (In Italy you vote for a party rather than an individual. Whichever coalition of parties gets the largest share of the vote gets the leadership position). However as the counting went on Berlusconi started to pull ahead, and the pollsters had to recant their predictions, positing that maybe people had been embarrassed to admit they voted for Berlusconi. It soon looked like he would pull ahead, and the Italian media was heralding a “Berlusconi Bounce.”

Ironically, it was Berlusconi’s own legislation and tactics that were his eventual undoing.

Although he is contesting the election result and will demand a recount, Berlusconi will lose because of three key factors that he himself created. First, Berlusconi’s government had created six new seats in the senate for Italians voting abroad, creating special districts out of the six habitable continents. Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia (Go Italy) won only one of these seats. Four went to Prodi’s coalition, Union, and one went to an independent party. Before these were counted Forza Italia was ahead one seat in the senate, and Union had a lock on the lower house. Since these two houses have equal powers the government can’t function with them under split control, so this scenario would have resulted in another election which probably would have gone to Berlusconi. But the added seats swung a clear victory to Prodi.

The second factor is a new electoral law pushed through by Berlusconi which gives whichever party gets a majority in the lower house, no matter how slim the margin of victory, 55 percent of the seats. The law was intended to benefit Forza Italia, but with an end result of Prodi’s coalition at 49.8 percent and Berlusconi’s at 49.7 percent, the prime minister definitely shot himself in the foot.

The third factor was that Prodi has been able to astutely navigate the media environment Berlusconi created in the past 24 hours. Taking a cue from the 2000 election in the United States, where in a brilliant move George W. Bush was able to seize the momentum by declaring victory before any result was certain (after Fox News awarded him the presidency while results were still too close to call, and other networks followed suit out of fear of being bested by Fox).

By doing so he was able to paint the Democrats as being whiny for demanding that results be made clearer (remember Sore Loserman?). Prodi took a page from Bush’s playbook and declared himself the winner last night at 2:30 am while results were still anything but certain. The celebration and champagne-popping was just in time to make the morning deadline for newspapers and for Berlusconi’s own TV cameras to capture. Berlusconi must have been fuming.

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