Photo Gallery: Il Cavaliere's Italy


The Sweet Poison of Berlusconi Italy's Downward Spiral Accelerates

International financial markets have lost their faith in Italy and Italians have lost their faith in their leader. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has led his country into the economic doldrums and the moral abyss. And he has shown no interest in solving any of the myriad problems which plague the country.

"Ah! servile Italy, grief's hostelry! / A ship without a pilot in great tempest! / No Lady thou of Provinces, but brothel!"
Dante Alighieri, "The Divine Comedy", Purgatorio: Canto VI

Monday, July 18, 2011 -- in the Milan Palace of Justice, a building protected by steel gates and blocks of marble, the next hearing in a trial got underway. It is the 16th trial against Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi since the early 1990s -- and by far the most spectacular. The proceedings are only now moving forward after delays due to questions about the court's jurisdiction and because the defendant was unable to attend because he was traveling on official business.

Indeed, Berlusconi has yet to appear in the courtroom, whose front wall is adorned with the images of three women -- allegorical depictions of Truth, Justice and the Law. Cages once used to hold defendants in Mafia trials are lined up along the side.

A 782-page dossier, numbered 5657/2011, was created in this Mussolini-era building near Milan's cathedral. It is filled with recordings of telephone conversations held by Berlusconi's party girls, their text messages, their diary entries and the transcripts of their police interrogations.

Berlusconi is said to have had sex with 33 women during private parties at his estates, such as the 145-room Villa San Martino in Arcore. One of those women was only 17, a nightclub dancer who uses the stage name Ruby Rubacuori. The indictment by the Fourth Chamber of the Milan Criminal Court includes charges of abuse of office and the promotion of underage prostitution.

'Say Nothing'

The investigators have compiled several pieces of evidence that support the indictment, even though both the defendant and Rubacuori deny the charges. Nevertheless, recorded telephone conversations between Rubacuori and her friends suggest the opposite is true. In one of many examples, Rubacuori says: "He called me yesterday and said: Ruby, I'll give you as much money as you want. I'll pay you, I'll cover you with money, but it's important that you keep everything a secret. Say nothing -- to anyone."

Il Cavaliere -- a sinner caught in the act. Not just the Milan court, but all of Italy must once again confront the buffooneries of its aging prime minister -- and this at a time when the country is in economic difficulties serious enough to threaten its very survival, and when the future of Project Europe depends in part on whether the third-largest economic power in the euro zone is being run decently and with sound judgment.

But the world, as has recently become apparent, thinks that it is not . Berlusconi's Italy is debt-ridden, shouldering a burden worth €1.85 trillion, more than twice as much as Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined. In the next 12 months alone, €300 billion of that debt will have to be refinanced -- more than the €250 billion in the euro-zone bailout fund. Last week, confidence in the country seemed to be disappearing from one day to the next.

Rating agencies, led by Moody's, threatened to downgrade Italy's credit rating. Private investors panicked  and sold their Italian investments, US hedge funds bet gigantic sums on the further decline of Italian government securities, and the Milan Stock Index declined for an entire week. It seemed as if Italy, the world's eighth-largest economy and a founding member of the European Union, had become the next Greece.

A Debt Spiral

The Finance Ministry in Rome easily managed to sell additional billions in debt securities last week, but it had to pay almost 25 percent higher interest than before. Had a new vicious cycle of debt been set in motion, this time on the western shore of the Adriatic?

This storm on Rome was also a trial of sorts. It was the international financial markets that were passing judgment on Italy last week. And this, too, was an indictment of the man at the top, Silvio Berlusconi .

The financial markets see the Italian premier as a burden on Italy and, by remaining in office, he is unsettling investors, writes the Financial Times. Some of Berlusconi's own supporters now fear that the prime minister and his scandals could irretrievably drive the country into a debt spiral. "Everyone is afraid of the contradictions between what Berlusconi needs for political survival and what the markets need," says columnist Francesco Sisci.

"Your government is harming Italy," opposition politician Anna Finocchiaro told the premier last Thursday. "This great country would be much better off without you."

Hardly anyone in the capitals across the EU  believes that Berlusconi will remain in office until the end of the current legislative period, which ends in the spring of 2013. It is thus time to take stock of the damage done in an era now drawing to a close.

Unending Debt Burden

In the 150th year of its existence, the Repubblica italiana is deeply divided, its constitution worn down and treated with contempt by its own institutions. The prime minister is being punished with international ridicule and contempt for his Bunga Bunga affair, the ongoing government crisis and the country's unending debt burden.

"Ciao bella," a country -- not always exemplary, but treasured nonetheless -- is bidding farewell to its status as a top-tier country. The Italian economy shrank by 5 percent in 2009 and hardly grew at all in 2010. In its 2010/2011 report, the World Economic Forum cites the state as the greatest impediment to growth, with its inefficient government bureaucracy, tax loopholes, inadequate infrastructure and poor credit supply. The Italian central bank concluded last year that total industrial production is 25 years behind the times, and that 560,000 jobs were eliminated between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2009.

The result is that the country is falling further and further behind the rest of Europe -- economically, culturally and politically. Italy is also having trouble finding its place in a globalized world. The Chinese have been copying famous Italian products for years, making knockoffs that are rarely of poorer quality but consistently cheaper than the original. EU politicians are now as impatient with Berlusconi as they were with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Many Italians are, too. "I have fantasies of Rome's Piazza del Popolo turning into Tahrir Square," writes the young Sicilian blogger Enzo Coniglio, whose views are shared by many. "Basically, what is the difference between young Egyptians and young Italians?" Berlusconi will be 75 this September. Why, asks Coniglio, aren't we finally pushing our pasha into retirement?

Rampant Amorality

Shortly before going into retirement, the now former archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, delivered a fiery sermon from the pulpit of the cathedral, saying: "Modern-day Italy is sick, just as Milan was at the time of the plague. Amorality is rampant at all levels of society."

His words reflected the views of those Italians who have had enough: enough of the orgies in the prime minister's harem, the increasingly dramatic economic situation, the chronic weakness of the opposition and the contempt for judges. Most of all, they have had enough of the ubiquitous grin, the mask-like makeup and the much too obviously transplanted hair of the man who has been trying to shape Italy in his image for the last 17 years.

They have had enough of Silvio Berlusconi.

The most recent surveys show that only 27.5 percent of Italians would re-elect Berlusconi. Almost one in two respondents said they were so disappointed that they no longer intended to vote or would not decide whom to support until the last minute.

Less and less remains of the Italy of the 1960s and '70s, the country to which Europe looked with hope, fondness and sometimes envy. The country has failed in many respects. On television, women have been largely reduced to sex objects. Many towns and cities in the north have become xenophobic strongholds of the right-wing Northern League. The Cinecittà film studio in Rome, legendary in cinematic history, has made way for the empire of bad taste, Berlusconi's media conglomerate Mediaset.

Much Less Attractive

The country is still charming for visitors and attracts tourists in droves, with 40 million coming each year, many of them from Germany. But for the Italians themselves, their country has become much less attractive.

Italy's predicament cannot, of course, be entirely blamed on one man. But it is also true that Berlusconi did nothing to slow what was already going wrong with the country. And his successor will inherit a country in deep trouble.

Berlusconi came into office with the promise of starting a "liberal revolution," one that would introduce less restrictive economic conditions and a better life for Italian families. On May 8, 2001, a few days before his second election win, Berlusconi appeared on the TV talk show "Porta a Porta" (Door to Door) and offered the Italian people a contract: He promised that, if elected, he would sharply reduce taxes within five years, raise the minimum pension to €500 a month, halve unemployment and kick-start massive investments in Italy's infrastructure. He also said that he would not run for office in the next election if he fell significantly short of these goals.

When Berlusconi signed this contract on live TV, the people were impressed and voted for him. But by the end of his five-year term in office, the results were meager: The tax burden had fallen by 0.1 percent, three-quarters of the retirees who were receiving monthly pensions of less than €500 did not see their pension benefits increase after the election, and only about half of the promised infrastructure investments actually materialized. Berlusconi had not delivered on the pledges in his contract with voters.

'Zero Interest in Italy'

Romano Prodi, the prime minister's biggest rival -- a man who twice managed to defeat Berlusconi in elections -- is all too familiar with Berlusoni's irresponsible political style. One month before the April 2006 elections, the polls showed challenger Prodi six percentage points ahead of the incumbent. But Berlusconi, ever the populist, surprised his countrymen with the announcement: "We will eliminate the homebuyer's tax on the first house!" Prodi's advantage melted away overnight. He still managed to win the election, but by such a small margin that he could only assemble a weak coalition, which fell apart two years later.

As Prodi's successor, Berlusconi took up residence at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome for the fourth time in 2008 and, as promised, abolished the principal property tax. This meant that municipalities were suddenly faced with a tax shortfall of €3 billion a year. To offset the loss, municipalities began raising taxes under their control, such as fees on the construction of new houses or workshops, industrial plants, logistics centers and supermarkets. Since then, many communities, hard-pressed for money, have imposed such heavy taxes that potential investors have been discouraged. "This has harmed Italy's economy for a long time," complains Prodi, adding that Berlusconi doesn't care. "He has zero interest in Italy!"

The London-based Economist also believes that Berlusconi's utter lack of interest in the economic situation is the prime minister's biggest failure. In fact, while Prodi at least managed to slightly reduce Italy's mountain of debt during his two terms, Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul who likes to portray himself as the business-savvy "chief executive officer of Italy, Inc.," only increased the debt.

In the three years of his fourth term, from 2008 to 2010, Italy's national debt has risen from 103.6 percent to 119 percent of GDP. This year, it will exceed 120 percent. Despite the heavily indebted treasury, Berlusconi continued to promise further tax cuts until last week. "Without tax cuts we will go under," he repeatedly told his finance and economics minister. But, as it happened, the minister, a stubborn man, had set his sights on a rigid austerity course.

Cronyism and Corruption

Giulio Tremonti, 63, was one of Italy's most successful tax attorneys until Berlusconi, for whom he had once worked, appointed him finance minister in 1994. But both his boss and the coalition partners with the populist Northern League have now turned away from him. Tremonti is "not a team player," Berlusconi said maliciously, and he berated Tremonti as a traitor. But Tremonti, convinced that he and his austerity program are indispensible, was unimpressed by the premier's criticism: "If I fall, then Italy falls," he said. "If Italy falls, then so falls the euro."

Yet, it is no longer that unlikely that Tremonti might indeed fall -- ever since the taciturn, modest man from northern Italy was inadvertently sucked into a whirlpool that could lead to a swamp of cronyism and corruption.

A long-time adviser, Marco Milanese, is to blame. A member of Italy's parliament, Milanese apparently had other sources of income as well. He drives a €270,000 Ferrari and owns a €700,000 motorboat, and now prosecutors are accusing him of having taken bribes when handing out Finance Ministry contracts. Tremonti immediately severed all ties with Milanese.

Is it a coincidence that this outrageous story is suddenly being brought to light now that Berlusconi and his Northern League allies are trying to get rid of the recalcitrant minister?

When Tremonti unveiled his austerity program, the chorus of protesters was large and loud. The program was designed to eliminate €47 billion in spending over four years by cutting costs in pensions, healthcare and the expenditures of ministries and regional administrations. In addition, fees were increased and tax rules strengthened.

Screwing Italy

The municipalities and regions were as incensed as the unions, the opposition called the program "social clear-cutting," and it was opposed by both the grassroots of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party and its Northern League coalition partners.

But events of recent days have temporarily silenced these opponents -- and even Berlusconi fell temporarily silent. The dramatic slump on the Italian stock market and the explosion of interest rates on government bonds has put the fear of God into everyone.

In a telephone conversation with Berlusconi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged him to implement the austerity plan quickly. In fact, everyone who called Berlusconi, including Bank of Italy Governor -- and soon-to-be Chairman of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt -- Mario Draghi, advised him to issue a convincing message of austerity as soon as possible. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano also made a strong public appeal supporting austerity measures. Suddenly, almost overnight, everyone was in agreement. In record time, the parliament approved a plan that had increased the size of the austerity package from €47 billion to €79 billion.

But the package's foundation is shaky. The program will save only €9 billion this year and next -- only 11 percent of the overall target -- and elections are scheduled for 2013. Whether the more ambitious belt-tightening goals for the following years will survive the election is anything but certain. "This government's program is an act of mistrust in itself," Prodi scoffed. "It passes responsibility to the next government."

No Radical Public-Sector Cuts

Even Tremonti seems to have lost the necessary courage as the law was being drafted. Even as excessive government bureaucracy remains the greatest drag on the country's economy, radical public-sector cuts are not part of the new austerity package. And Tremonti is also trimming only a small portion of the costly political apparatus.

The billions in payments to political parties will remain intact. Italian taxpayers pay more than €1 billion a year for a gigantic fleet of official cars that are available to the political class free of charge. They routinely clog the streets and alleys in Rome's government district, an area that has long been off-limits to ordinary mortals in their cars.

The stagnation at the looming end of the Berlusconi era is palpable.

Berlusconi's economic policy is a ready-made mix of intervention and laissez-faire. Everything is possible, as long it has a positive impact on the next opinion poll. This isn't politics; this is entertainment democracy. "Berlusconi is pathologically determined to please other people. He needs their affection," says someone who knows him very well: Giuliano Ferrara, the publisher of Foglio, a small daily newspaper loyal to Berlusconi.

But the years under Il Cavaliere have turned Italy into a country where the younger generation can only dream of many positions, while the key jobs in the Italian gerontocracy remain occupied by those in Berlusconi's age group. Young women have asked him: What should we do, Mr. Prime Minister? Berlusconi's answer: "Find a rich husband."

The Girls of Arcore

In a recent cover story, The Economist dubbed Berlusconi "The man who screwed an entire country," a double entendre meant to suggest that not only has he given all of Italy the runaround, but also that he has done with it what he presumably did with his girls in Arcore.

For this reason, the awkward hearings in Milan are not as much about which indecencies prosecutors can pin on the premier but, rather, about the question of how much longer Italy is willing to tolerate this prime minister.

Article 54 of the Italian constitution reads: "Those citizens to whom public functions are entrusted have the duty to fulfill such functions with discipline and honor." This is certainly not the case with Berlusconi. For more than 20 years, dozens of judges have been investigating the former bar singer, real estate developer and media tycoon for crimes including tax evasion, accounting fraud and his dealings with the Mafia.

Indeed, Berlusconi is enmeshed in a private battle with the judiciary that has turned into a pathological obsession. "I am the most accused man in the world," he often boasts. He claims that he has been subjected to more than 2,500 hearings and that it has cost him €200 million to "pay advisers and judges -- uh, lawyers."

He has never been convicted of a crime or sentenced to a jail term. Sometimes he was acquitted, but in many cases charges against him have fallen under the statute of limitations, or he has simply acted on his own authority and had laws amended in his favor. Now Berlusconi has been ordered to pay €500 million in damages to his old enemy, Carlo De Benedetti, the publisher of Italy's second-largest newspaper, La Repubblica. In 1991, following a highly controversial court decision, Berlusconi managed to wrest control over the Mondadori publishing house from De Benedetti. Years later, another court ruled that the judge in the previous case had been bribed. The case had already fallen under the statute of limitations, and Berlusconi could no longer be taken to court; but now civil law is catching up with him. Having survived many a trial, Berlusconi naturally plans to appeal this case, as well.

Paying for Sex

But the first item on his agenda is "Rubygate." The girl appeared for the first time in Berlusconi's private mansion on Valentine's Day 2010. Karima el-Marough, a native Moroccan, was 17 years, three months and three days old at the time. Berlusconi is alleged to have paid the girl for sex 13 times, and the two reportedly had 67 telephone conversations with each other.

The mere notion seems absurd. A prostitute with a prior conviction for theft, a runaway from a reformatory in Sicily and the girlfriend of a shady nightclub owner has the secret mobile phone number of one of the world's most prominent politicians. In other countries, a prime minister would be finished after such escapades -- but not in Italy.

The public learned the first details about the orgies last October. Berlusconi himself had attracted the attention of investigators. On the evening of May 27, he called the Milan police chief and claimed that el-Marough, who uses the stage name Ruby and was being held at the police station, was the niece of Egpyt's then-President Hosni Mubarak.

In January 2011, the public prosecutor's office confirmed that an indictment had been filed against Berlusconi and three of his assistants. In February, a judge ruled that Berlusconi could be tried in expedited proceedings. He could face up to 15 years in prison -- if the case even goes to trial, that is.

The Disintegration of Political Culture

Ruby, who is now thought to be pregnant, is enjoying her newfound celebrity. She danced at the Vienna Opera Ball and, in teary-eyed interviews on Berlusconi's TV stations, talked about her horrible childhood, an early rape and the illusory world of lies she had fallen into. She also defended her patron, saying: "He didn't touch me. He thought I was 24."

The Italians were shocked. The details of the case revealed the true nature of a man they had secretly admired for 17 years because he was like them: corruptible, fallible and a man of the people who once said that it's "better to be passionate about beautiful girls than gay."

But what they were now witnessing was the tragedy of a dirty old man who had lost his grip on reality, a ruler in a golden cage, susceptible to blackmail, surrounded by prostitutes and escorts prepared to profit from his loneliness and power, women who slept with him, as they told authorities, so that they could "really cash in" afterwards. They call him "Papi." They are creatures he brought to life himself through his television stations: TV starlets and dancers, money-grubbing and vulgar. They use stage names like Marishtelle, Aris, Iris, Aida or Michelle, they come from far-flung countries such as Ukraine and the Dominican Republic -- and they live for free in apartments in Milano Due, a commuter town Berlusconi had built in the 1970s.

"Talent scouts," like Mussolini admirer Lele Mora, who discovered the 16-year-old Ruby in a Milan nightclub, procured the girls for him. Mora also introduced Berlusconi to Noemi Letizia, the minor from Naples with whom he had the 2009 affair that convinced his wife to file for divorce and call her husband a "sick man."

Mora has been in custody since June, when he was arrested for bankruptcy fraud. He told the girls he procured for Berlusconi: "You will be the official nurse. You need a fake blood-pressure monitor and a nurse's outfit. And don't wear anything underneath it, of course. Then examine him. You know how much he enjoys things like that."

'Dragged Through the Mud'

The Papi girls allowed him to ogle and grope them, but they had to overcome their disgust first. They called Berlusconi "fat and ugly," as least according to the minutes of their recorded telephone conversations. But they played along because he was "generous." Iris, a Brazilian woman, said: "Normally you have to work seven months for what I was paid." But otherwise, she added, "the old man really gets on my nerves." Ruby's conversation was being wiretapped when she said: "What do I do if he resigns? Then I'll have nothing left to bite." She allegedly received about €6,000 for her services, and then tens of thousands later on. But she apparently demanded to be paid €5 million "for having my name dragged through the mud."

Nicole Minetti, a former dental hygienist who has also been indicted, knows how to build a career in Berlusconistan. She, too, was once a starlet, and today she is a regional councilor for the ruling party. She says: "He sends us into the parliament and he thinks to himself 'Now I'm rid of those nervous chicks' because now the government is paying our salaries.'" But she also senses how precarious her situation is. "Politics is a brothel," she says. "If it falls, we fall, too."

As devastating as all of this is to the prime minister's reputation and that of his country, it is ultimately not a question of Berlusconi's lack of discipline and honor. After all, Berlusconi's private life is his business.

What is unforgivable, however, is what accompanies these personal scandals because Berlusconi is kept busy solving his private problems or promoting his personal business interests: the disintegration of political culture, the gagging of the judiciary and the humiliation of women. These are all offenses that Berlusconi will have to answer for -- not before the courts, but before those who succeed him.

A Threatened Unity

There are few countries where the head of government displays such contempt for the established constitutional institutions, from the constitutional court to the presidency, and even has this contempt broadcast on his television channels. The enthusiasm for the state has never been particularly strong in Italy. This makes it all the more disastrous when the prime minister, of all people, adopts the same line.

Italy just celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding as a modern state. But in some parts of the affluent north, where the Northern League's voters reside, it is almost impossible to buy an Italian flag. In the Veneto region, the national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi was burned in effigy.

Not surprisingly, three ministers with the Northern League announced they would not attend the anniversary ceremonies. This would be like German cabinet members refusing to sing the German national anthem on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League, did make a very reluctant appearance. But instead of wearing a lapel pin showing the green, white and red colors of the Italian flag, he wore a Celtic cross and a green pocket square, a symbol of his allegiance to the state he would like to see on the soil of northern Italy -- or what he calls "Padania."

Indeed, Italy is turning into a smaller version of Europe: It is divided into a rich north, which would prefer to open its own club, and a south dependent on transfer payments.

"Secession will be the greatest threat to the post-Berlusconi era," predicts author and journalist Curzio Maltese. And he wonders what highly developed Lombardy still has in common with Calabria, Italy's poorest region -- except for the Mafia.

Serving as a Distraction

Berlusconi is a master of delays and changes of course, and he is certainly not a visionary working according to a well-defined agenda. He conceals his failure with "polemics, pomp and propaganda," says historian Hans Woller, a researcher at the Munich Institute of Contemporary History and one of Germany's top experts on Italy. Even the premier's scandals have a purpose, namely, to serve as a distraction.

Berlusconi's government has systematically tried to put an end to the independence of the judiciary. In berating and disparaging judges and prosecutors, he and his followers employ a tone Europeans are more likely to associate with Belarus. Judicial authorities are denied funds for investigations, personnel, official cars and travel. It was only the president who managed to shoot down a judicial reform that would have allowed a defendant to reject a court's jurisdiction the minute he suspected that one of its judges could be biased. The rule would likely have put an end to all Berlusconi trials.

The prime minister's supporters can even hypocritically boast that there is no longer any accounting fraud in Italy. This is correct, but only because it was simply abolished as a criminal offense. As a result, many criminal offenses involving economic crimes are no longer being prosecuted.

The non-political in Italy has become highly polarized: The media, the judiciary, the economy, education and culture -- everything is measured by the yardstick of partisanship. Politics itself, meanwhile, is treated like a television soap opera with the same repeating punch line: "Meno male che Silvio c'è," fortunately there is Silvio.

The 'Insidious Coup'

Berlusconi's understanding of democracy is a simple one: Whoever has the majority of votes is entitled to unlimited power, and it is up to this person to distribute major and minor positions to his clientele as he sees fit. The opposition is sidelined completely. His understanding of parliamentarianism is pre-modern. He believes that it would be sufficient for just the parliamentary leaders to vote in parliament, and that this would save time and unnecessary debate.

Berlusconi chose Justice Minister Angelino Alfano to tame the judicial apparatus. And he has done well: Only his immunity law, which was tailored to the needs of the prime minister, was blocked (by President Napolitano). As a show of gratitude for having protected the premier from indictments for so long, Alfano was just named general secretary of Berlusconi's party. Berlusconi himself could easily imagine Alfano as his successor, if he truly decides not to run for re-election in 2013, as he recently announced.

The author Umberto Eco calls it an "insidious coup" and points out: "If a country's institutions are changed step by step, it becomes difficult for individuals to see the dictatorship approaching. The function of insidious coups is that the amendments to the constitution are almost never noticed. And by the time they have produced the Third Republic, it will be too late."

Culture, one of the underpinnings of Italy's reputation around the world, has been attacked with particular fierceness during Berlusconi's tenure in office. The budget for culture has been repeatedly reduced in recent years, even in the face of untiring protests from filmmakers and directors. Culture is this country's natural resource. It has 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and yet its riches are buried rather than protected.

Indifference to Culture

Pompeii, for example, is now experiencing its second downfall. The deteriorating UNESCO World Heritage Site is now ruled by stray dogs and Mafia-like gangs of tour guides. It isn't money that Pompeii lacks. Some three million foreign tourists visit Pompeii each year, paying an entry fee of €11 apiece, and Rome pays €40 million in subsidies to the site. But the money either seeps away or is spent on ostentatious PR campaigns. The last mosaic conservator retired three years ago.

"Our ancestors once created masterworks, the Renaissance, the Baroque, Venice," says architect Massimiliano Fuksas, who designed the MyZeil shopping mall in Frankfurt. "Our illustrious past could help us save Italy. But it's as if our DNA had changed. We have mutated into a people without a memory. We live in a 'Jungle Camp' and in the cheap series on Berlusconi's television channels."

This same indifference is also evident in nature, which has always been one of Italy's top tourist attractions. Every spring, entire slopes are destroyed by erosion, mudslides demolish houses and citizens drown in floodwaters -- the result of paving over the landscape, illegal construction, shortsighted planning, profiteering and organized crime. The case of the segment of the A3 Autostrada from Salerno to Reggio in Calabria is legendary. No motorway in Europe has ever taken as long to build. The ground-breaking ceremony took place in 1962, and it was completed in 1974, but much of the segment lacked an emergency lane, which meant that it did not satisfy the EU standards for motorways. The renovation began in 1997 and is scheduled for completion in 2017 -- at 10 times the original construction budget.

Technical or engineering issues are not the problem. Italy has outstanding road builders. The problem is that the A3 passes through Mafia territory. Each individual kilometer is being built by a different company, and almost all have more or less clear connections to the organized crime syndicate in Calabria, the 'Ndrangheta. The autostrada is described as "the longest corpus delicti" in Italy, riddled with fictitious construction services, bodies entombed in concrete, invisible gangs of workers, protection money and construction machinery that catches on fire all by itself.

Behind Ghana and Botswana

"Italy is standing still," concludes Matteo Mauri. He is in charge of infrastructure and transportation for the Democratic Party. "Other countries move forward and invest. We are blocked by the inefficiency of a man who is incapable of governing."

The social status of women has also suffered during Berlusconi's time in office. His television empire seems to specialize in low-budget series that revolve around humiliating scantily clad women.

When Inge Feltrinelli, Umberto Eco's girlfriend of many years, moved from Hamburg to Milan in 1960, she arrived in a country where women still lived in the Middle Ages. They couldn't get divorced, which only became legal after 1970, and abortion was also illegal. "They spent their lives moving between children, the kitchen and the church," says Feltrinelli, 80, in the office of her Milan publishing house, Italy's last leftist bastion.

But Italian women quickly caught up to the rest of Europe, says Feltrinelli, successfully fighting machismo and the powerful church. "They proudly showed off their bodies, which was part of their liberation, but at what cost?"

According to Feltrinelli, Italy is now a country in which women attract attention by stripping and saying stupid things on TV. "Just look at them, those Rubys and Noemis, looking like little Paris Hiltons," she says. "They want instant fame, the freedom they see Berlusconi enjoying. They are so incredibly boring, and I feel sorry for them."

After a brief period of progress, Italian women are now among Europe's least emancipated. The employment rate for women is one of the lowest on the continent -- only 33 percent in southern Italy. Women earn half as much as men and spend 21 hours a week working in the household. Italy is ranked 74th out of 134 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, well behind countries like Ghana and Botswana.

'Voluntary Servitude'

Feltrinelli was there in February when about a million Italian women took to Italy's streets with panties on their heads and waving their bras, chanting "Basta!" She says: "We were too late. We should have defended ourselves earlier!"

Why is all of this happening? Why are the Italians doing this to themselves, and why do they persist in pursuing what the philosopher Paolo Flores d'Arcais calls "voluntary servitude?" Although there are many reasons, two are cited the most frequently.

First, quite a few Italians benefit from their prime minister's political machine. Hardly any other European country has as many self-employed people. The roughly 27 percent of Italians who are self-employed tend to sympathize with an anti-politician, one who muddles through and who protects his (and their) privileges, who doesn't take the law too seriously and does everything possible to avoid punishment. These micro-Berlusconis are kept happy with provisions to safeguard and restrict access to their businesses, tax exemptions and amnesties. They will continue to vote for Berlusconi or his party, as will housewives and retirees who spend their days watching television.

But Berlusconi's biggest strength is the weakness of his opponents, the "one-eyed stupidity of the opposition leaders," as Flores d'Arcais puts it. The left currently lacks a strong figure that could pose a serious threat to Berlusconi.

Despite a successful referendum in June that destroyed Berlusconi's plans to build new nuclear power plants, and despite having won municipal elections in Naples and Milan, Italy's left is proving to be incapable of liberating the country from its prime minister.

Since 1994, when Berlusconi became Italy's prime minister for the first time, center-left alliances have been in power four times, albeit briefly. It was an opportunity to curtail the power of Il Cavaliere, and they could have enacted laws regulating conflicts of interests, as is standard in democracies. But they didn't. In the United States, France and Germany, a businessman who is elected to run a government resigns from his corporate job. But why doesn't this happen in Italy?

A Laughing Stock

The opposition's lack of ideas is one of Berlusconi's trump cards. Many opposition politicians are former communists, people who were raised to think in terms of stereotypes and are masters of political maneuvering.

When Prodi's successor, Massimo d'Alema, took over government in 1998, all he would have had to do was wait. Berlusconi was in serious economic trouble at the time, had prosecutors on his heels and was on shaky ground as the leader of the right. But the new prime minister wanted Berlusconi's help to bring about election reform. Berlusconi received new loans, was politically rehabilitated and, as a reward for his cooperation, saw nonpartisan laws enacted that kept him out of prison. He won an election soon thereafter. In this same manner, the left squandered its opportunities again and again.

Many economists also assign some of the blame for the crisis to the Italians. Their wages have risen more sharply than in other countries. Since 2000, unit labor costs have gone up by 27 percentage points more than in Germany. In terms of productivity, in particular, things are not looking good for Italy. Italy has dropped to 48th place in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index, below Poland, Spain and even Portugal.

Appearing on a popular TV show, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne recently told his fellow Italians exactly what this means. Of the roughly €2 billion Fiat earned in revenues from its ordinary business operations in 2010, Marchionne said, "not one euro" came from the six Italian plants.

No Foreign Investment

Instead, Marchionne explained, the company exclusively makes its money abroad. The reason, he said, is simple: Each employee who builds Fiat models in Poland makes an average of 100 cars a year, compared with 77 in Brazil and only 30 in Italy. Italy has been losing ground for the last 10 years, Marchionne said, and has failed to keep pace with its neighbors. As a result, he added, "there are no foreigners investing here anymore."

Bank of Italy Governor Draghi, already practically on his way to Frankfurt, gave his country a farewell lecture. He demanded extensive reforms and held the Berlusconi government responsible for the country's stagnation. Without growth, Draghi said, there could be "no realistic prospects for the reduction of our mountain of debt."

Young Italians, in particular, gave up hoping for better politics long ago. Instead, they are applying for scholarships abroad and emigrating to anywhere but Italy. One of those is Ruth Stirati, a native of Rome with three children. On a recent day in Berlin, she was sitting in a student café in the Schöneberg district sending questions to customers from her laptop. The 38-year-old Stirati is the founder of an unusual moving company. She helps Italians find housing in Germany, an aid to her frustrated countrymen in their search for recognition and a future. Berlin's Italian Diaspora is growing rapidly. Already, 15,000 of Stirati's fellow Italians are registered in the German capital, and some believe there are twice as many.

Her customers quickly respond. "It was a forced resettlement," writes an architect. "I left Italy because it missed its connection to the 21st century." He complains about nepotism, the hopeless job market and a crippling fatalism that insists that this is just the way things are in Italy. "Che vuoi fare?" he asks. What can you do?

Strippers in Parliament

The refugees want to start careers and be paid for their efforts. "I don't want to work in a precarious situation anymore," writes one doctor, "just to be overtaken by someone who has longer legs or relatives in politics." A computer scientist writes: "I can't afford to spend half the day in government offices or traffic jams." A university lecturer writes that he doesn't want his son to grow up watching television and seeing "strippers who make it into parliament."

The flight of the well-trained and educated is a new and serious problem. Some 40,000 students leave Italy each year. Fifty years ago, southern Italians came to Germany with their cardboard suitcases and helped the Germans build their economic miracle. Today, the Italians are coming to Germany to show that they are better than their country's reputation.

This, then, is Berlusconi's record. He has done little for his country, and yet he controls the minds of Italians. He launched a cultural counter-revolution that politics will take a long time to recover from.

And many think the phenomenon is a dangerous one. "Berlusconism," writes Flores d'Arcais, "is the postmodern counterpart to fascism, based on the legalization of privilege and the dominance of the image." According to d'Arcais, it embodies the right wing of the future, complete with privileges for the ruling clans, the intimidation of journalists and an impotent judiciary. "Today more than ever, Europe runs the risk of being infected by this Berlusconism, this Western form of Putinism."

And what happens after Berlusconi? Without him as a center of gravity, the days of the kaleidoscope coalition, the alliances changing on a daily basis but always featuring the same figures, would return to Italy's parliament. Without a counterweight, the Northern League separatists would probably become more powerful. And the old man himself would remain in the background, like a shadow over the country.

A Lack of Seriousness

The opposition would also lose its focus. In the worst case, it might even have to govern. But it has failed to develop a politician with the charisma, stamina and political allure of someone like Berlusconi -- and the integrity and seriousness Il Cavaliere so completely lacks.

As long as the left doesn't understand what Berlusconi has given the Italians, what hidden need he satisfies, it shouldn't dream of a shift in power, writes Mark Lilla, a professor of the history of ideas at New York's Columbia University and an expert on the attractiveness of autocrats who even modern Europeans still feel drawn to today. According to Lilla, "the left must become a post-Berlusconi political force." Otherwise, the Brechtian option remains: Dissolve the people, and find yourselves a different people.

Berlusconi has set the tone in Italy for 17 years. Berlusconism was like a sweet poison, one that provides pleasure followed by vice. It will take many years to break this wonderful country of its Berlusconi habit.

The beginnings are already underway. It was shortly before midnight on Feb. 17 of this year, a Thursday, when a sort of civil re-establishment of Italy took place, going virtually unnoticed by its neighbors. It happened on the stage of festival of San Remo, the sacred altar of Italian TV entertainment. The comedian Roberto Benigni had just finished a 56-minute monologue about the national anthem.

His performance had been a lesson in politics and public spirit, full of humor and derision, delivered at a breakneck pace and accompanied by his windmill-like arm movements. The Oscar-winning actor appeared on television on the back of a white horse, waving the Italian flag, laughing and blaspheming and tracing every word of the national anthem. And then he sang it, with no orchestra, suddenly quiet and thoughtful, as if to ward off the ill-fated present: "Fratelli d'Italia," or Brothers of Italy.

Later that evening, President Napolitano called Benigni to thank him. Sixty-six percent of Italians experienced that moment, and it must have moved them deeply, because they are still talking about it. It was an historic moment, and it was uniquely Italian: A comedian rescuing politics because a politician had made himself and his country into a laughing stock.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan