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Bye Bye Bunga-Bunga: Italy Prepares for the Post-Berlusconi Era

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's star would appear to be fading. Following a miserable showing in recent municipal elections, many within his conservative alliance feel it is time for a change. But Berlusconi continues to live in denial.

Silvio Berlusconi has lost his mojo. Zoom
REUTERS

Silvio Berlusconi has lost his mojo.

"The election debacle is not my fault," the Italian Prime Minister defiantly declared following local and regional elections last week. Instead, he blamed the media.

The irony was hard to ignore. Berlusconi, after all, is a media czar, controlling several Italian television stations and newspapers in addition to having a significant degree of control over RAI, the state-owned public broadcaster. Indeed, such far-reaching control of the media is unheard of elsewhere in the European Union.

But Berlusconi seemed untroubled by such trifles. Thankless voters like those in Naples, he said, would "deeply regret" their decisions and the citizens of Milan, his traditional base of power, should "start praying."

Reports of repenting were few and far between. Instead, tens of thousands of people throughout the country gathered for victory celebrations, chanting "Berlusconi, step down!" Many in Berlusconi's own conservative governing alliance agree with the sentiment. Very few, however, have said so publicly.

Berlusconi's power, after all, is still great -- as is his thirst for revenge. Economics and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti was the first to learn that lesson. Many hope to see Tremonti succeed Berlusconi, but last week, during a discussion on proposed fiscal reforms, Berlusconi put him in his place, saying, "it isn't Tremonti who decides. He just makes suggestions."

A Crumbling Regime

Despite such efforts at bravado (Berlusconi also claims to have "zero point zero" problems), it is becoming increasingly clear that Italians are preparing for the post-Berlusconi era. Even if he manages to hold on to power for a little longer, his glory days would seem to be behind him. Berlusconi, who refers to himself as being "anointed by the Lord," is presiding over a crumbling regime.

Following the communal and regional elections, the opposition now controls seven out of 11 major Italian cities. In Milan, left-wing candidate Giuliano Pisapia succeeded in breaking the conservative grip on the city stretching back to 1992. In Naples, the party of leftist candidate Luigi de Magistris took 65 percent of the vote in a run-off election, leaving just 35 percent to the candidate from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party.

The PdL's junior coalition partner, the xenophobic Northern League, also took a major hit at the ballot box. Party leaders have realized that no more victories are to be had with Berlusconi. But lacking an alternative partner, they are remaining true to the alliance -- for now.

Berlusconi, as the recent campaign made clear, has lost his most important political gift: his instincts. He always seemed to have a knack for knowing what moved the voters, what made them angry and what made them happy -- a knowledge which translated into success at the polls. The recipe was simple: A bit of polemic against the "communists" and the judiciary; a dash of invective against gays, Gypsies and Muslims; a couple of cheap promises, such as imposing caps on taxes and creating jobs. He then spices up the mixture with a few off-color macho witticisms -- and voilà.

Turning their Backs in Droves

But the Italians, it would seem, have lost their appetite for the prime minister's cooking. Berlusconi's rhetoric, says election scholar Renato Mannheimer, ignores "the needs of the electorate." University graduates and business leaders have turned their backs in droves.

Berlusconi spent last week reshuffling his party leadership and Angelino Alfano stepped down as justice minister to assume a position as general secretary of the PdL. He will be tasked with keeping a fractured party together. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa went so far as to say that "everything is now up for discussion." Pundits have taken that to mean that even Berlusconi's position as head of the party could be in danger. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini likewise said it is time for the party to choose a new leader.

The PdL is in dire straights. The party even fell from power in the little city of Arcore, which lies only 22 minutes by rapid transit from central Milan. The city is home to Berlusconi's luxurious "Villa San Martino," which is now notorious the world over for being the place where the prime minister hosted his infamous "bunga-bunga" parties.

The city is now to be governed by a determined 53-year-old leftist named Rosalba Colombo. During the campaign, Colombo spoke about potholes in the streets, the lack of sufficient daycare facilities, and how businesses are moving away. Such issues, it would seem, are clearly more important to voters than being within smelling distance of the perfumed world of Berlusconi. These days, even hardened supporters of the PdL-Northern League coalition in Arcore are tired of being the butt of jokes when they tell people where they are from.

Weak Opposition

Still, it is unclear whether the Democratic Party (PD), Italy's largest opposition party, is in a position to capitalize on the situation. Many of those who came out on top after the votes were counted were not established opposition politicians, but were political outsiders.

Indeed, PD bigwigs in Milan had actually intended to send a loyal but colorless party soldier to enter the race there. He would almost certainly have lost. But a citizens' initiative joined by luminaries such as top-selling author Umberto Eco, propelled Giuliano Pisapia to the top of the ticket -- and he emerged victorious. It was a similar story elsewhere.

Political analysts and public opinion polls indicate that Italians have not only had their fill of Berlusconi and his scandals, but they are also tired of the elites on both sides of the political divide. The omnipresent bickering over political posts, the constant verbal insults, the apparent lack of attention to real problems facing the country: People on the right and left are abandoning the traditional parties and yearning for competent leadership.

A renewal at the top is necessary. Even if Berlusconi denies it, the economy has been stagnating for years. Production costs are climbing, a product of the bloated bureaucracy, and Italian products have become less competitive internationally. Companies are closing down or moving elsewhere. Unemployment, particularly among young people, is high. The already exorbitant national debt continues to climb. Berlusconi's only strategy appears to be that of cutting taxes in an effort to secure support. Finance Minister Tremonti has so far blocked him, fueling Berlusconi's rage even further.

A Radioactive Referendum

Still, it's not just Tremonti who has suddenly turned against the prime minister. Last week, it was the Cassation Court, Italy's highest appelate court. The court voted to allow a referendum on nuclear power to go forward.

It is a referendum which Berlusconi had hoped to avoid. In 1987, in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, the country abandoned nuclear energy. But in 2008, Berlusconi's government voted to reintroduce the technology. Plans were put on hold following the Fukushima accident earlier this year, but only, as Berlusconi admitted, until fears subsided. His government then attempted to block a new referendum called for by anti-nuclear activists.

The prime minister, predictably, has framed the court's decision as yet another instance of the judiciary coming after him. "In doing this," he says, "they think they have delivered the decisive blow."

His response is a tactical one. His party and his media outlets are ignoring the referendum in the hopes that the required quorum of 50 percent of Italian voters will not be achieved.

On June 12 and 13, Italians will once again have the opportunity to have their say.

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