The Godfather Part III Italy's Berlusconi Preens for Comeback

This weekend's elections in Italy could mark billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's return to power in what would be his third term in office. But rarely have Italian voters been so weary of their politicians -- and rarely has there been so little hope of any real change.

The man is exhausted. He gazes out into the darkness through the windows of the bus. "Italy is a wonderful country. But this political system!" The bus passes the lights of furniture warehouses, factories and brightly lit showrooms. "It's a system that is incapable of assuming responsibility and reaching any decision at all. And the parties are internally divided. The country is tired and sick."

The man on the bus is Walter Veltroni, and his task is to win the Italian parliamentary election this coming weekend.

He has just returned from a campaign appearance in Mantua, in the Lombardy region, where two or three thousand people came to the piazza to hear him speak as he stood blinking through his glasses at the city's magnificent old walls. It was an event that mirrored past appearances on other stunningly beautiful piazzas, in places like Cremona and Bergamo, and his audience was filled with much the same crowd of admirers, waving the cardboard signs of his Democratic Party and calling out "Walter! Walter!" as if he were their shining hope.

But the polls show Silvio Berlusconi and his People of Freedom party leading by a margin of 5 to 8 percent. Europe can start getting used to the idea of a third term for this billionaire politician, who was never able to see a difference between his own interests and the common good.

No one outside Italy's borders is likely to understand this -- or, for that matter, anything that happens in politics in this magnificent country. It is a country that is both an esthetic superpower and the site of burning piles of garbage in Naples. And it is a country whose business executives working abroad, for companies like BMW and the German financial giant HypoVereinsbank, celebrate successes, while its most profitable business organization at home is the Mafia.

This country can still look forward to its own bitter reforms: in education, transportation, pensions and the restructuring of the constitution. Italy has fallen behind its neighboring countries. In fact, it is almost stagnating when it comes to growth and research and the influence they bring. By contrast, a country like Spain is in the fast lane. Italy cannot afford to feel exhausted. And that's what the election is all about.

The government of Romano Prodi lost its majority in the Senate in late January. Justice Minister Clemente Mastella changed parties because his wife was being investigated for abuse of authority. He said that he felt let down by his party. The upshot was that the government of the world's seventh-largest economic power collapsed over the problems of a provincial politician from the small town of Ceppaloni near Naples.

Was this what Veltroni meant when he talked about his country's sickness? Tiny parties are making decisions that will affect the fate of the nation, driven by their leaders' craving for recognition and by the temptation lurking at ever turn.

The people are "mistrustful," Veltroni says on his campaign bus. This, he adds, has been his experience during his tour of each of the country's 110 provinces. They are suspicious of the caste of politicians and are even leery of their own hopes. Experts say that this is why more voters than normal have decided not to vote at all.

Veltroni is a calm man. As the mayor of Rome, he was fond of inviting intellectuals and movie stars to his city hall. He is now 52. Perhaps his time has not yet come.

He avoids mentioning the name of his opponent at his campaign appearances. He doesn't want to campaign on an anti-Berlusconi platform, or as the heir to the unpopular Prodi administration. The latter is the more difficult challenge of the two. After all, Prodi is also a member of the Democratic Party. For many Italians, the name "Prodi" represents taxes, a high cost of living and political impotence. "It is difficult to give them hope. But we can do it," says Veltroni. "Obama has also done it."

Veltroni's campaign slogan is: "Si può fare," or "Yes, we can" in Italian. "I met Obama in Washington," says Veltroni. "He was different. Modern and inspiring. I wrote the foreword to the Italian edition of his book." Perhaps it was intended as an attempt to influence Veltroni's own destiny.

"Si può fare" are the words printed on the cardboard signs that Veltroni's audiences wave when he speaks on their piazzas. But there is something unreal about the slogan, especially in light of the stonewalling and bureaucracy and ineptness Veltroni himself has complained about, and in light of the Italian sickness.

There is no Obama in Italy. In no other European country except the Vatican is the political class so heavily influenced by old people. The 89-year-old former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti has been in the parliament without interruption since the end of World War II, and he is still an important player. Clemente Mastella, a former labor minister and justice minister, has been a deputy for 32 years -- for four different parties.


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