Ausgabe 17/2008

Italy's Cavalier Chameleon What Does Berlusconi Have Up His Sleeve?

The old man with the face lift is back in power again. But what does Silvio Berlusconi have planned for his third stint as prime minister? One thing is certain: the anti-immigrant Northern League will be keen to wield its newfound power.

Silvio Berlusconi is sitting pretty after winning a clear majority in Italian elections.

Silvio Berlusconi is sitting pretty after winning a clear majority in Italian elections.

When Silvio Berlusconi gave his inaugural speech to European leaders in 2001, at a European Union summit in the Belgian town of Laeken, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder removed his headphones after the first few sentences. The interpreter, he assumed, must be either incompetent or drunk.

But the translation wasn't the problem. The man really spoke that way. It was as if he were still in campaign mode and giving a stump speech on some Italian piazza. The speech even elicited a smile from then French President Jacques Chirac.

Since then, Il Cavaliere -- as Berlusconi is known -- has never managed to shake off the stigma among his European counterparts of being a leader who is not to be taken seriously. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the only one who really bothered with Berlusconi: Blair visited Berlusconi in Sardinia and the two leaders were united in supporting the Iraq war.

But this time around, things are going to be different. After Berlusconi's election victory last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly invited Italy's prime minister-elect to Berlin, to send a clear signal to him that he is being taken seriously this time. Merkel's approach is to bring about change through engagement and involvement -- if only to prevent the development of an alliance between the diminutive men with the over-sized egos at the helms in Paris and Rome.

Berlusconi, at any rate, is no longer just a disaster that can simply be ignored. After his election victory, the 71-year-old Italian prime minister has finally become the "emblem of an era" for Italy, as the left-leaning liberal daily La Repubblica writes. Europe will have to put up with Berlusconi for a few more years to come.

Berlusconi's center-right coalition captured 46.8 percent of votes for the lower house of the Italian parliament and about 9 percent more than Walter Veltroni's center-left Democratic Party in both chambers. As a result of Italy's new 4-percent hurdle, the "Rainbow" alliance of left-wingers and Greens disappeared from parliament completely, as did the extreme right wing of politicians nostalgic for the days of Mussolini. The new rule means that instead of three dozen parties in parliament as in the past, there are now only six. Pier Ferdinando Casini from the centrist UDC party describes the new constellation as a sort of "German system."

The Berlusconi phenomenon now bears some similarity to French Gaullism or Peronism in Argentina: a charismatic leader who is hated as passionately as he is worshipped, and who possesses the ability to gauge the public mood and act accordingly. Depending on the market situation, he can be a rebel or a conservative, liberal or authoritarian. He is a chameleon of convictions, with an infallible sense for current opportunities.

The newspapers called Berlusconi's victory a landslide, and the results were indeed accepted with the same fatalism with which one would accept an earthquake. On election night, only tourists could be seen on the streets of Rome and the squares were empty. Even in front of the parties' headquarters there were hardly any people. There were no parades of honking cars, no defiant celebrations among the losers. It seemed as if Italy had accepted that the eternal return of the old man with the face lift was its fate.

After his 1994 and 2001 election victories, Berlusconi was kept busy dealing with his companies and pending lawsuits. But those concerns are now gone. His businesses are flourishing. The trials of Berlusconi for corruption, false accounting and bribing witnesses were either stopped because the statute of limitations had expired or were abandoned. As for his ongoing trials, his lawyers have those under control.

In this regard, his opponents can at least hope that Berlusconi is serious about structural reform this time around. "No one can talk his way out of this with alibis," former President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said, commenting on the clarity of the current situation.

"There will be difficult moments," Berlusconi said at his first press conference, where he even announced "unpopular measures" and "sacrifices and cuts in the privileges and expenditures of the public administration." The approach is as populist as it is risky. In no other sector are Italy's trade unions as powerful as in the public sector.

Share prices of cement and construction companies rose sharply after Berlusconi promised that a proposed bridge to Sicily would be built quickly. He also promised that every effort would be made to come up with an Italian solution to solving the problems of the money-losing airline Alitalia "within one month." Air France/KLM withdrew its offer in early April after Berlusconi and the unions criticized the proposed sell-off of the national airline.


© DER SPIEGEL 17/2008
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