May 18, 2011

The Long Fall of Silvio Berlusconi

You may say that the round of Italian elections that closed Monday—which went badly for the center right ruling coalition—were only for local administrations, but Silvio Berlusconi emerged as the biggest loser as the outgoing mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti, failed to avoid a runoff in her bid for re-election. In fact, it was he himself who had presented the local contest as a referendum on his government. He had staked his reputation in support of Moratti and had campaigned strenuously for her. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, the left’s candidate for mayor, Giuliano Pisapia—a longtime independent member of parliament for the far-left Refounded Communist Party who had previously staged an upset by beating the mainstream center-left Democratic Party’s candidate in the Milan primaries—managed not just to secure a second round with Letizia Moratti but also to outdistance her by more than six percentage points (the two will face a runoff on May 29 and 30).

Add to this that Milan is politically significant in several respects, being a) Italy’s finance and business capital, b) Berlusconi’s native city, and c) the one from which he launched his political career. As it was not enough, Milan is also where Silvio Berlusconi is being tried on a string of charges, including the latest and most insidious one: the so-called “Rubygate”—even though, these days the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair makes Berlusconi look like Benny Hill…

But then again, at least in the case of Milan, it wasn’t just Berlusconi’s fault. Ms Moratti bears part of the responsibility for the current disaster. I primarily refer to what she did in the final moments of a televised debate: she unexpectedly accused Pisapia of long ago stealing a car and association with left-wing terrorists, what she omitted to note was that Pisapia was acquitted on the charges 26 years ago. This jarred with the traditionally moderate style of Milanese people—and every rule of good taste, fair play and even common sense!

It is also to be said that the results in Naples show that the center left is in no better shape than the center right. In fact, a candidate for the small Italy of Values party ran against the choice of Italy’s biggest center left group, the Democratic Party (PD), and won more votes. To say nothing about the results of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (almost 10% in Bologna, 10% in Ravenna, 15% in Rimini, 5% in Turin, 8% in Savona, and so on), whose goal is to demolish the credibility of the whole Italian political and economic establishment, which, of course, includes the Democratic Party.

However, as I said above, there is no doubt that Berlusconi is the biggest loser. Yet, Roberto Formigoni, center right governor of the northern Lombardy region, is right when he advises against anyone giving up Berlusconi for dead: “People have been saying that for 20 years, and he is still very much alive,” he says. But, even though it’s not over yet, it will take a miracle to stop the decline and fall—a long and somewhat painful fall—of Silvio Berlusconi. Yes, it’s a hard time for the man who was able to forge a powerful and strategic alliance between the various sectors of the Italian political right, which in turn prevented the post-communist left from winning an otherwise inevitable long lasting victory. That’s a great credit to him, but as French mathematician Henri Poincaré put it, “There are people who think that the right to ingratitude is the most important freedom.”