Silvio Berlusconi is sitting pretty after winning a clear majority in Italian elections.Foto: AFP
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.
Showgirls and Xenophobes
In the new Berlusconi administration's first cabinet meeting, probably next week, property taxes for first-time homebuyers will likely be abolished. It will be a popular measure in a country of homeowners, with the only losers being the municipalities. Berlusconi's last-minute campaign promise to get rid of the car and moped tax as well is no longer on the table, however. The election winner also appears to have lost interest in his promise to reform Italy's confusing election law. "After all, it worked well," Berlusconi said, explaining that only a minor correction in the Senate was required.
Berlusconi's People of Freedom alliance has actually lost votes compared with the 2006 election. This time he owes his clear victory to the Northern League, which brought in more than a million new votes to secure a majority for Berlusconi.
The Northern League, a regional party led by the political rabble-rouser Umberto Bossi, benefited from widespread dissatisfaction with the political elite. For the first time, its voters included both Fiat workers and the owners of the kinds of small and medium-sized companies which line the highway from Milan to Verona.
It would be a mistake to treat the Northern League as nothing but a xenophobic rightwing group. The party bears a stronger similarity to Germany's conservative Bavarian party the Christian Social Union (CSU) than to France's far-right National Front. It is a force anchored in its region, and it is now powerful enough to force Berlusconi to federalize Italy's financial institutions.
Casini's Christian-democratic UDC party did not manage to become a kingmaker, and is now entering opposition instead. This too was a revolution -- for the first time, the Italian clergy will no longer be able to directly influence the secular government.
Italy's political center of gravity, it seems, has shifted to the north.
Details about the make-up of Berlusconi's new cabinet have emerged over the last few days. Contrary to previous announcements, the new government will neither be slimmer nor have more women than its predecessor. Of the probably 18 cabinet positions, only two will likely be occupied by women.
Berlusconi's right-hand man, former journalist Gianni Letta, will handle the day-to-day business of politics as deputy prime minister. Franco Frattini, the current vice-president of the European Commission, will be foreign minister, a post he held once before, from 2002 to 2004. Giulio Tremonti will also return to a position he has already held, that of finance minister. Raffaele Lombardo will serve as Berlusconi's man on Sicily, where he assumes the post of regional president.
The conservative National Alliance party will likely take control of the Justice Ministry and the Defense Ministry. Party leader Gianfranco Fini has chosen the job of chairman of the Chamber of Deputies for himself, and he has also been charged with transforming the loose-knit People of Freedom alliance into a traditional party.
Mara Carfagna, a former showgirl, is being considered as minister of social solidarity and/or family matters. The 32-year-old lawyer currently heads the women's league within Berlusconi's party.
However Berlusconi said Monday that his cabinet list was not yet finalized, and warned that he had some surprises in store. Meanwhile, the Northern League said in comments published Monday that its cabinet posts would include interior minister, reforms minister and agriculture minister. Bossi said the post of deputy prime minister would go to controversial League member Roberto Calderoli, who has outraged Muslims with anti-Islam comments and stunts in the past, such as wearing a T-shirt featuring one of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. Bossi himself is expected to become reforms minister, despite his poor health; he is still recovering from a severe stroke four years ago.
The center-left candidate, Walter Veltroni, barely escaped a crushing defeat with his newly established Democratic Party. He would have come under pressure to resign if his party had captured less than 33 percent. Instead, it came away with 33.17 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and 33.69 percent in the Senate.
As the heir apparent of the Prodi era, Veltroni failed to penetrate into the middle-class center, only managing to win over voters from the radical left. As a result, Veltroni, himself a former communist, ensured that, for the first time since World War II, there are no longer any communist factions in the Italian parliament.
The results are even unsettling for anti-communists. The unions have lost important partners in the parliament, and it is not clear how social resentment and economic dissatisfaction will be expressed within the new political constellation. There are already fears of non-parliamentary movements and wildcat strikes. Former President Francesco Cossiga even considers a new wave of 1970s-style left-wing terrorism to be possible.
These are exciting times in Italy.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan