The Silvio Show: Berlusconi's Extended Honeymoon

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Polls show that most Italians are squarely behind Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But since he re-took the reins in Rome, Il Cavaliere has made few difficult decisions. That will soon change.

It's nice to see heads of government in a good mood. Last Monday, on his 72nd birthday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was in high spirits. Standing in front of a villa he had recently purchased on Lago Maggiore with his arm around one of his grandchildren, he was elated by recent polls. "Public opinion is on my side," he said.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is still well-liked by Italians.
REUTERS

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is still well-liked by Italians.

Rising prices? No problem, says Berlusconi. "I'll make a deal with the major chains and retailers." The opposition? "Non existent, invisible!" The prospect of legal action against Berlusconi has faded far into the background, and even his football club, AC Milan, is winning again. And besides, what prime minister has a former nude model, Mara Carfagna, in his cabinet -- as Equal Opportunities Minister.

That is something not even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can claim. Berlusconi has good reason to be so pleased with himself. This autumn he is perhaps more powerful than ever -- and he is savoring every minute of his winning streak.

The cartoonist at the pope's-favored newspaper Corriere della Sera has taken to portraying the potentate as a magician in an oversized costume, waving his magic stick. The show, so far, has not been half bad. The bankrupt airline, Alitalia, was saved from collapse. Naples' notorious garbage collection problems were largely resolved within 90 days. The government budget approved "in nine-and-a-half minutes." And all because of Super Silvio.

'Dictatorship of the Majority'

And why should he care about opinions abroad when more than 60 percent of Italians are satisfied with his government? He is firmly convinced that Italy is to be envied for having Berlusconi as its prime minister.

"The honeymoon period between the Cavaliere and a solid majority of Italians continues -- and is getting stronger." These are the words of one of Berlusconi's archrivals, Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the daily La Repubblica.

Berlusconi's adversaries are horrified by the populist's popularity. Anna Finocchiaro, the leader of the Democratic parliamentary group in the Senate, calls the Berlusconi government a "dictatorship of the majority." This notion is fitting given the impending demise of a handful of independent newspapers -- including the leftist in manifesto -- because Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti is eliminating subsidies.

There are similarities between the Berlusconi government and the "Putin model," according to opposition leader Walter Veltroni: "Divergent views are treated as an annoyance from which we must free ourselves, while the separation and independence of powers are seen as an obstacle to be removed."

It may be a sign of efficiency that the budget plan whipped through the cabinet in "nine-and-a-half minutes" -- but it is certainly not a sign of democratic consensus-building. Parliamentarianism takes time.

The Italians do not love Berlusconi. They are not even especially proud of him, and yet they voted for him -- not out of stupidity, but out of painful experience. When the umbrella of the European Union no longer offers anything to dream about and when the only remedies offered by political parties involve belt-tightening, many voters opt for the candidate who can govern.

No Pain

In the past two years, Italian politics has consisted mainly of gladiator-style battles within coalitions including numerous parties from all over the political spectrum. Now the Italians have the irritating feeling, once again, of being governed.

The coalition between Berlusconi's centre-right party, People of Freedom, and the separatist Northern League party, which would like to declare Italy's rich north a sovereign republic independent from Rome, has been a stable one. The government has a record of less squabbling and more decision-making. And the public appreciates this -- especially as most Italians have yet to face any pain from these decisions.

In its first 150 days, the Berlusconi administration pushed through a law conferring immunity on the four highest government offices. As a result, Berlusconi cannot be hauled before a court for as long as he is in office. He enacted a "Robin Hood" tax on the profits of financial and petroleum companies, announced the construction of 20,000 low-income housing units and signed a treaty of friendship with Libya. "From now on," a self-satisfied Berlusconi said, "there will be fewer immigrants and more natural gas."

He also eliminated the unpopular tax on first-time homebuyers and reduced the taxes on overtime. Both are gifts to his supporters, the ordinary citizens.

Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League hothead, has eliminated 3,500 laws and regulations without anyone having noticed their absence. He also developed a proposal to federalize the tax system, a long-standing dream for the League. Under the plan, wealthy regions would have a say in the revenue sharing process, while the less affluent ones, instead of being issued a blank check for their expenditures, would receive fixed amounts and be expected to budget accordingly.

Berlusconi is also clamping down on street prostitutes (most of them foreign), homeless junkies, sidewalk vendors and undocumented slum dwellers -- in line with the judicial approach of "taking a strong stance against the weak and a weak stance against the strong."

Populism and Reform

This is populism -- short-sighted, but easy to see. Even left-leaning city administrations, like those in Bologna and Mantua, favor decrees designed to improve government monitoring of public space. But this approach has already led to a suspicious rise in attacks against the country's darker-skinned residents. Last week in Parma, auxiliary police beat up a student from Ghana.

So far, Berlusconi's policies have been an oddball mixture of populism and reform efforts. He governs by feel and addresses the most glaring problems himself, using many telephone calls and even more tax money. Take Naples, for example. There, Berlusconi gave a waste commissioner a governmental-level post and declared the removal of the city's garbage a priority.

He negotiated with communities to obtain their approval for new garbage dumps. The national clean-up operation has proved costly, especially now that thousands and thousands of tons of waste will have to be sent to Germany for incineration. But over the past 14 years, many governments have pumped money into Naples -- this is the first time the investment seems to be paying off.

Of course, it will take at least three years before waste disposal, including the necessary new incinerators and recycling programs, is completely reformed. But Berlusconi has demonstrated that governing is possible, even in Naples. The Italian sickness -- a blend of trusting in God, nepotism and incompetence -- seems to respond to treatment, and that in itself is progress.

Berlusconi for Life

The Alitalia case, on the other hand, could have been resolved in the spring when Air France-KLM was prepared to acquire the airline, debts and all. The plan failed because of opposition from several groups in the economy and industry, who had been given a promise by Berlusconi that a "national committee" would save the airline.

That, though, was wishful thinking. Instead, Alitalia has been broken apart. The best parts went -- without so much as a bidding process -- to a consortium of 16 Italian billionaires (Benetton, Colaninno), corporate groups and banks. That team is to be strengthened by a foreign airline (Lufthansa and Air France-KLM have been mentioned). The bones, especially the airline's €1.2 billion ($1.75 billion) in debt, will go to the state. But the real losers are the 3,100 Alitalia employees who have been sacked.

So far, Berlusconi has proven himself to be a man of action in the areas where it should have hardly been necessary: in the waste removal problems of a few districts in the south and the sale of a mismanaged airline.

But the tough projects are yet to come. After a war of words with opposition leader Walter Veltroni, Berlusconi announced that he would, despite resistance and even if it meant "using decrees," implement his own program:

  • Judicial reform intended, among other things, to break the omnipotence of public prosecutors, especially that of the "red robes," or the supposedly communist-inspired judiciary which are the prime minister's biggest enemies.
  • Educational reform designed primarily to save €8 billion ($11.6 billion), in a country that barely managed to score passing marks on the PISA test;
  • A federalization of the tax system, although how it will actually work is still completely unclear. Only six regions, Lombardy, Umbria, Piedmont, Venice, the Aosta Valley and Sardinia, are capable of covering their own expenditures.

In the coming weeks, it will become clear whether the magician is more than just an illusionist. Meanwhile, the opposition currently has nothing but an old management principle to bring down the 72-year-old: promotion. Sources in Rome say that if Berlusconi is willing to cooperate with the opposition in reforming election laws, leading opposition politicians will be willing to accept Berlusconi in the highest office: the presidency.

For the Repubblica Italiana, this would mean Berlusconi for life.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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