Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Berlusconi, the Italian asbestos – hey, at least he isn't gay!

Incredible, he's done it again! Despite all logical odds, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has again narrowly escaped defeat like some kind of reality-defying illusionist. But this is Italy, and perhaps logical odds were never the right indicators to use here. After all this is a country where the prime minister can cling to power even after he's been caught lying to a police station to release from jail an underage Moroccan erotic dancer he’s having relations with. This is a country where half of the administration can be forced to resign after corruption scandals, and yet the leader himself is still left standing triumphantly.

How can one explain this bizarre land south of the Alps? As has often been noted, few other developed countries would tolerate this kind of extreme behavior from their elected leader. In the past this blog has been routinely wrong in predicting Berlusconi’s imminent defeat. I just couldn’t believe that someone could hold on to power after these kinds of revelations were out there. Last year, during the prime ministers scandal-plagued divorce from his wife, allegations of sex with minors, hiring prostitutes and lavish orgies at Silvio's Sardinian villa were everywhere - and the prime minister didn't even bother denying them.

This is why when these revelations about the Moroccan belly dancer (pictured below) came out in October - and Berlusconi issued his subsequent defense of, “Yes I’m passionate about beautiful girls, but it’s better than being gay,” - I didn’t even bother writing about it. Yes, the fact that he got his Moroccan Lolita released from jail by telling a police station she was the Egyptian president’s daughter might have seemed like surely the final step too far. But I had been burned too many times by prematurely predicting Berlusconi's demise.

But after this scandal there was a real difference. The tide finally seemed to be turning against the philandering Italian leader, and today the Italian parliament held a no-confidence vote that seemed sure to unseat him. Many were predicting he couldn’t possibly survive after losing the support of his main coalition ally, the ex-fascist Gianfranco Fini, with whom he had a dramatic falling out (televised Jerry Springer Style - see below) falling out. But somehow he survived the no confidence motion – by three votes. It was an amazing feat after a week in which even some high-ranking conservative MPs had acknowledged that Berlusconi had become a national embarrassment. Outside the parliament, Rome was a mess. Police closed off a large area around government offices to deal with the estimated 50,000 anti-Berlusconi demonstrators who had amassed there. The public, at long last, appears to have turned against him. Though it took a perplexingly long time, recent surveys have shown that less than 30% of Italians want Berlusconi to finish his current term. Though still, his personal approval rating remains high in Italy.

So how did Berlusconi survive? In essence, the billionaire prime minister is a bit like asbestos in the walls of Italy: toxic for the country, but if you remove him the whole structure will need to be renovated – and the building could collapse. This was the essence of Berlusconi’s plea to his countrymen today. Gianfranco Fini, the other viable conservative leader in Italy, has not shored up his support quickly enough to take power yet. The center-left is still in disarray and there doesn't seem to be any clear leadership contenders on that side. There is nobody to replace Berlusconi with. "I ask you to reflect on the political folly that opening a crisis without visible and credible solutions would be," Berlusconi told the parliament. Essentially, it’s Berlusconi or nobody – they can keep the asbestos, or risk political chaos in removing it.

And now is not a time that Italians want to be engaging in any type of ‘political folly’. Italy's economy is in serious trouble, laboring under one of the heaviest public debt burdens in the world - almost 120% of gross domestic product. For two years Berlusconi has been telling the Italian public that they would be shielded from the worst of the debt crisis, unlike their fellow Southern European neighbors, because the Italian financial sector wasn't deeply connected to the 2008 banking crisis. That lie has come tumbling around Berlusconi's head in the past several months, and there is now serious talk that Italy's debt rating may be downgraded along with Portugal's and Spain's. This is a terrifying prospect not just for Italians, but for the whole EU. If Portugal, Spain and Italy were to fall like dominoes across the Mediterranean it would surely spell disaster for the euro currency. And if the Italian government were to descend into political chaos, it wouldn't be long until the bond markets came circling overhead like vultures.

This is why the capitals of Europe were watching today's vote with apprehension. Berlusconi is certainly not well-liked outside Italy. Indeed, the only world leaders left with whom he enjoys good relations may be George W. Bush and Colonel Gadaffi. But if his fall from power could result in political chaos in Rome that could bring down the entire eurozone, I'm other European capitals would likely rather keep him in place than take the risk of seeing him leave. That appears to have also been the sentiment of a slim majority of Italian MPs. Even though they may have known they should have, they didn't get rid of the asbestos when times were good (or at least when Berlusconi was telling them times were good). Now Italy is broke, and they can't afford the risk an asbestos removal operation would entail.

For the left, both within Italy and without, it's hard to get too excited about the prospect of Berlusconi leaving. It might be comforting to at last have the much-hated Italian conservative out of office, but the man who would most likely replace him - Gianfranco Fini (pictured right)- is possibly even more dangerous to the left than Berlusconi. Fini is no buffoon like his former ally, and though he has moved his stated political ideology to the centre-right in order to be electable, he likely still harbours the same far-right feeling he used to when he was an avowed fascist. Out of the two - a weak centre-right buffoon or a shrewd far right newcomer - the left might indeed prefer the former.

As for Berlusconi, his political career is safe - for the moment. But in essence, this crisis has only been delayed until after Christmas. A majority of three votes is not sustainable in a parliamentary system, and Berlusconi knows that. After today's vote, he hinted that he may undertake a cabinet reshuffle, bringing in his conservative former friends-turned-enemies (including Fini). But even this seems unlikely to allow him to cling on to power for much longer. Then again, this is the slippery Berlusconi we're talking about here. You can never really count him out.

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