Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Berlusconi back on top

It’s official, Silvio Berlusconi is back in power in Italy after a significant victory in the country’s election Sunday and Monday.

The return of a former leader who was only ousted two years ago may not seem like a watershed moment, but the voting patterns were significant and could (I emphasize could) bring significant change down the line. In a country known for a vast menagerie of various parties making up its parliament, voters for the most part stuck with just the two big party formations in this election: Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) and Veltroni’s newly-formed Democratic Party (PD). More than eight in 10 voters backed one or the other, and in the end the elections put only five separate parties into the parliament.

Massimo Giannini of Rome University told AFP that the elections “revolutionise the national political geography” and make political streamlining and institutional modernisation a possibility for the first time in recent memory.
 

Perhaps most significant was the dismal showing by the far left. The well-known parliamentarian Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of the Communist Party, even resigned on Monday because the party’s performance was so poor. But considering it was the Communists’ fault that the centre-left coalition of Romano Prodi collapsed, this may not be too surprising. Probably the only people who are big fans of Italian communists right now are the centre-right, seeing as they’ve returned them to power.

So now the Italian parliament is starting to resemble that of most other Western democracies. It will have the two main parties, then each party has a small ally in parliament (the separatist neo-fascist Northern League for PDL, the tiny Italy of Values party for PD).

Despite the promising reorganisation, the challenges facing a Berlusconi administration seem insurmountable. His election appears to the rest of Europe more as an act of cynical desperation from the Italian people than any sort of hope for the future. Media mogul Berlusconi, Italy’s third richest man and the owner of nearly all of its television stations, came into power at age 55 with promises of a business-like approach to government and economic reform. He delivered neither, and in fact Italy’s economic problems only worsened under his stewardship. What he did deliver was a flamboyant and confrontational diplomatic style that frequently offended other European leaders and caused embarrassment for the nation. He also formed a close alliance with George W. Bush and led Italy into the Iraq War, which was immensely unpopular in the country. Romano Prodi, who ousted Berlusconi in 2006, removed Italian troops from the operation. It is not known whether Berlusconi would renew the commitment, but it seems unlikely.

At 71, it is unlikely that Berlusconi will be able to now deliver on any of the projects he failed to achieve at 55, and new parliamentary rules he himself ushered in during his previous administration will make governing nearly impossible. He also has some legal troubles to deal with and a possible EU investigation into whether it is legal for him to own all of Italy’s televisions stations and be prime minister at the same time.

In fact, the promising few-party result of this election had nothing to do with Berlusconi but rather it was the decision by his rival Walter Veltroni to break up the centre-left coalition and run without the communists. That decision may have cost him the election, but it has the potential to break Italy out of the governmental gridlock its found itself in.

In any event, it would seem that the only person who is excited about another Berlusconi presidency is Berlusconi. The rest of Europe is viewing the outcome with a mixture of skepticism and alarm, and Italians themselves seem to be stuck in a mire of hopelessness in which even the idea of hope for the future seems out of place. It’s hard to see where this government goes, and indeed in typical Italian fashion we may be seeing another election in a year. But the elimination of some of the small extremist parties does offer a kernel of hope in this election result, and who knows, perhaps Berlusconi will be able to overcome the odds and solve some of Italy’s crippling problems.

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