The Italian Patient: Resisting Berlusconi's Charms

By and

Photo Gallery: The Return of Italian Political Chaos Photos
AFP

Silvio Berlusconi may be back with his customary bombastic campaign promises. But will the Italians bite? If they do, it could spell doom for the country. If they don't, Italy's tradition of political instability might return anyway.

The rumors had been swirling for days, and there were mysterious Tweets coming from a certain Berlusconi2013. Then, last Sunday, it was finally time for Berlusconi's big surprise, when he announced "la proposta shock," -- his big campaign promise. Critics promptly dubbed it a "proposta sciocca," or foolish proposal.

It was 12:32 p.m. in the old Milan convention center when Berlusconi explained that he not only intended to abolish the real estate tax but also wanted to reimburse those who have paid it by March -- in cash if necessary. "You can pick up your money at any post office," he says. "If you vote for me."

The announcement triggered shrieks of delight only three weeks before the election. "Silvio," one woman shouted, "you are a legend!" The financial markets were less impressed and immediately reacted negatively. Europe had believed this particular chapter was over. But there he was again, the undead of Italian politics, the gifted populist and vote-getter.

Berlusconi's promise zeroed in on a property tax levied on homeowners. Some 80 percent of Italians live in their own home and are subject to the payment, one that Prime Minister Mario Monti had reintroduced as part of his effort to clean up Italy's deficit-ridden government budget. The tax came due a week before Christmas.

It invigorated Berlusconi's fans, who began waving the flag of the party Berlusconi founded, "The People of Freedom" (PDL), and playing its 2008 campaign song, "Meno male che Silvio c'," or "It's a Good Thing that We Have Silvio." The party is currently working on a new campaign song.

"Vote-buying" and "corruption," Monti cried. "Demagoguery," shouted the center-left camp led by Pier Luigi Bersani, but they sounded like spoilsports.

The Mummy Has Returned

Berlusconi upped the ante a day later, promising an amnesty for tax evaders, of which there are many in Italy. The amount of tax revenue lost to tax evasion -- some €120 billion ($160 billion) -- is the equivalent of 6 percent of Italy's sovereign debt.

Berlusconi's return to the political arena is a shock. It would be his sixth candidacy, his "last great political battle," as he calls it. He will be 77 this year and is currently defending himself in two court cases. It's been hardly a year since the rating agencies downgraded Italy's credit rating because of its unstable political situation, and Berlusconi submitted his resignation on Nov. 12, 2011.

But now the mummy has returned, and has rapidly become the most important personality in the pending general election. A remark by Berlusconi, like the one he made on Sunday, is enough to cause the markets to plunge and the risk premiums for Italian sovereign bonds to rise. It is enough to trigger the return of worry about the Italian patient, the fear of contagion, the euro crisis and political self-paralysis -- in short, the fear of the former Italy.

Thanks to Monti, Europe was able to experience a different Italy for 13 months, a country of reforms in which calcified ways of doing things were being changed. For 13 months, Monti spearheaded a silent revolution, the markets regained confidence in Italy and the country was spared social unrest. To its neighbors, it seemed that for the first time in a long time, a form of policy was being pursued in Rome that had more in common with Max Weber than Federico Fellini: a patient implementation of the necessary rather than a garish display of vanities and favors.

Now, however, things are once again going well for Berlusconi. He is a fighter, he says, "destined to win." As the campaign has progressed, and as revelations regarding the scandal surrounding the world's oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena -- an affair Berlusconi blames on the leftist city government of Siena -- have become more embarrassing, the better his poll numbers have become.

A Master Salesman

As recently as January, his campaign alliance was trailing significantly behind the real favorite in this election, center-left politician Pier Luigi Bersani, 61, of the Democratic Party (PD). But now the gap has narrowed, depending on the polling organization, to less than 5 percentage points. His rival Monti is only polling at 13 percent, or about half of Berlusconi's result.

Berlusconi is still a master salesman, a man who knows how to campaign better than anyone else. Helpfully, he still also owns several television stations. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn't appear on a talk show, wearing a dark-blue, double-breasted suit, his legs crossed, holding forth in a mixture between stump speech and pure entertainment. He brags about his heroic deeds, talks about how he captured the heart of his new girlfriend, the 27-year-old Francesca, and how he, as the owner of AC Milan, paid €20 million for the football star Mario Balotelli.

It is still his audacity and his intuition for the fears and yearnings of ordinary Italians that captivate the populace. One day, he praises former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on Holocaust Memorial Day, the next he threatens German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Italy's withdrawal from the euro zone. He complains about the "leftist, feminist judges" who ordered him to pay his ex-wife €3 million a month in alimony. It's all textbook populism, but it works for Berlusconi and has brought him votes.

Some 50 million Italians will go to the polls on Feb. 24 and 25. The question is whether they will put their faith, once again, in a man who has been promising them an Italian economic miracle for almost 20 years, but has in fact driven the country into financial ruin. Or will Italian voters switch on their long-term memory?

They will have a choice between two policy concepts, between Monti's reform course and the art of seduction practiced by someone like Berlusconi, between reason and emotion and between what their heads tell them and their gut feelings.

The decision sounds easy from the outside. But the Berlusconi platform is nothing if not alluring. Furthermore, many families can hardly afford to wait for the fruits of long-term reforms. There is an Italian saying that goes: "Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domain." Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow.

A Great Contrast

When the ancient Romans were in dire straits and no one in the Senate knew what to do, an honest man was appointed "dictator." For a short time, he had free rein without having to worry about political majorities. After that, the temporary dictator was expected to step down again, which he usually did.

Mario Monti, 69, most closely approximates this figure in recent Italian history. He was directly appointed to the position by the Italian president, as a sort of special envoy of political reason and commissioner of the economic imperative. There is no greater contrast possible than that between Monti and Berlusconi, between the extremely levelheaded economics professor and Il Cavaliere, the seducer.

Monti and his cabinet of technocrats had more than a year to turn their attention to the reform projects Italian political parties had never embarked upon, because they were always more concerned about votes and favors than acting in the interest of future generations. Monti refused to accept a salary for his services, as if, by making this small sacrifice, he were invoking the willingness of his fellow Italians to endure hardships.

The financial markets reacted favorably immediately after Monti was sworn in on Nov. 16, 2011. The feared "spread," or risk premium on government bonds, began to shrink. Since then it has remained at a high but not critical level, at least until the Sunday Berlusconi made his campaign promise in Milan.

Monti's results are respectable. He had set out to achieve nothing less than a "general overhaul" of Italian society, complete with its evils and sicknesses, like corruption, mismanagement and Mafia connections. It was time Italy got its house in order, he often said, adding: "We alone are to blame for our plight."

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