The World from Berlin 'Berlusconi's Only Political Project Is Himself'

Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition emerged victorious after regional elections in Italy this week. However, most German papers argue that this success has less to do with the prime minister himself than it does with the increasing strength of his ally, the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Silvio Berlusconi on the campaign trial.
dpa

Silvio Berlusconi on the campaign trial.


Many on the Italian left may have hoped that the economic crisis -- coupled with the many distractions in Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi 's life, including sex scandals and an ugly public spat with his wife -- would see them making significant gains in regional elections this week. If so, they were sorely disappointed.

Instead, Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) and his coalition partner, the anti-immigrant Northern League, actually wrested control of four regions away from the opposition and held onto two other contested regions. Italy's fragmented left now only controls seven regional governments and was largely driven out of the wealthy north.

Berlusconi's decision to hit the campaign trail and mobilize his supporters seemed to pay off to some extent as 13 of Italy's 20 regions went to the polls on Sunday and Monday. In particular, the prime minister will relish taking the Lazio region, which includes the capital, Rome. Nevertheless, the 73-year-old Berlusconi's triumphalism may be premature. His party's share of the vote was down almost 11 points, to 26.7 percent, compared to the 2008 national election. The coalition's success was largely a result of low voter turnout, which saw 35 percent of Italians not voting for any party. Indeed, there was no major switch to the opposition Democratic Party, which has lacked a clear platform and been beset by infighting.

More significantly, perhaps, the coalition's success was also the result of the Northern League's emergence as an increasingly important political force. The party saw its share of the vote rise from 8.3 percent in the 2008 election to 12.7 percent. As expected, it won the northern region of Veneto, becoming the biggest party there, but it also edged ahead of the left in Piedmont and closed the gap with the PDL in the industrial region of Lombardy.

This success will undoubtedly give the Northern League and its leader, Umberto Bossi, a greater say in the national government. It is expected to push for a tougher line on immigration, which it links to crime, and more autonomy for the north.

On Wednesday, German papers look at the rising fortunes of the Northern League and the inability of the left to present a convincing alternative to the center-right.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Silvio Berlusconi sees himself as the winner of Italy's regional elections. He can claim to be strengthened as he enters into the last three years of this legislative period. … But, if you take a closer look, this is no great personal success. It will now be more difficult for him to claim he is backed by the majority of the population. That is due, first of all, to the historically low turnout of 63.6 percent and, secondly, to the fact that his party only saw an average vote of 27 percent in the 13 regions."

"The true winner in these regional elections was the Northern League. The PDL's junior coalition partner is getting increasingly stronger: It reached an average vote across the regions of almost 13 percent."

"The league's success marks another phenomenon in these elections. The big parties are stagnating or losing support. The PDL only attracted 27 percent of the vote, and the biggest opposition group, the Democratic Party, won just 26 percent. … The record abstention rate is not just the result of resignation, but also a protest against the big parties, which many regard as only being preoccupied with themselves. Italians feel they have been left alone to deal with their economic problems and are disgusted by the scandals of the elites."

"The Northern League's leader, Umberto Bossi, was able to profit from this…. Likewise, although the league has officially softened its tone ... it is still anti-immigrant, still fixated on law and order, and still gives priority to the north above all else. However, they have given up on the idea of secession in favor of federalism. The party has become the mouthpiece for the small farmers and businesspeople in the north who make up Italy's economic backbone. They are suffering in the current crisis. Most have no financial protection. They complain that they can't get credit and that they pay too many taxes. They feel the pressure from lower-wage economies and see how foreign companies are taking away their profits. To many, Bossi seems to offer a more decisive set of policies."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Italy's opposition may have hoped that results in the regional elections would have given Berlusconi a similar mauling to that which President Sarkozy recently experienced across the Alps. However, once again, it was the Italian left that was mauled."

"The hope that Berlusconi's slide in popularity, and all the scandals big and small, would automatically have sent voters into the arms of the opposition has once again been dashed."

"The prime minister has lost a lot of his appeal in the eyes of his many followers. But they would never consider voting for the left. … Instead, they just stayed at home."

"In the past 15 years, he has succeeded in polarizing voters to such an extent that it has become a huge exception to see voters switch from the opposing camps. Nevertheless, Berlusconi could easily have lost if the Democratic Party and other opposition groups had managed to mobilize their own forces."

"That didn't happen. Left-wing voters are as little impressed by their parties as those on the right are impressed by Berlusconi. There has been a lack of convincing ideas to oppose his right-wing populist policies … What left-wing voters want are politicians who are working for the interests of the ordinary people and policies that mark a clear alternative to those of the right-wing parties."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Berlusconi may act like the winner … but his triumph is just wishful thinking. Granted, his coalition did win, but he emerges from these elections ... weakened."

"The cry of triumph is supposed to distract from the fact that his PDL party saw a massive slump in votes. The voters are turning away from the established parties. There is growing disappointment with the political class. Abstention reached a record level. And the main culprit for this development is Berlusconi himself, who has consistently worked at freeing politics of all real content."

"This draining of politics of any meaning continues to be Berlusconi's recipe for success. Making light of things and denying problems are what helped him attract voters in the past."

"But not this time. The country's problems are too great, and its social and health systems need reform. There has been huge disappointment with the government's work over the past two years, as Berlusconi has yet to launch any fundamentally new policies."

"The right-wing camps with serious policies -- and, above all, the Northern League -- are the ones profiting from this. The party has clear political aims: an independent north, tough measures against illegal immigrants and more law and order. Moreover, unlike the PDL, it has a strong grassroots movement to back up these aims. In fact, it is the opposite of the presidential PDL, which changes its profile to match the moods of its leader."

"The election result shows that the party will have to create a stronger profile if it is to be successful. And that means getting rid of Berlusconi, whose only political project is himself."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"How could this happen? After all the scandals, the Italians have once again voted for the center-right coalition. And Berlusconi's coalition was able to take power away from the left in Lazio and Piedmont, in particular, the regions where he campaigned in person."

"The success of Berlusconi's coalition is not due to his media empire; nor is it a result of the Italian's low expectations when it comes to the morals of their politicians."

"The problem is, in part, the weak impression the left made. In recent months, it has also been in the headlines for sex scandals and corruption. And the infighting amongst those on the left has cost it a lot of sympathizers."

"Many Italians are not happy with Berlusconi but they don't see any convincing alternatives."

"What does the result mean for Italy? Although Berlusconi feels strengthened, he knows that he now will have to deal with a much stronger coalition partner. The Northern League … wants financial federalism, which, for them, means that taxes should be spent where they are collected."

"Meanwhile, Berlusconi wants to reform the justice system, mainly to help himself … nd to introduce a directly-elected prime minister."

"It is difficult to see what else Berlusconi wants to achieve. The latest campaign was almost devoid of content. The government program is mostly directed toward the needs of the prime minister … Italy has long lost its international importance. Luckily for it, the government has been prudent during the crisis, which has given it a good handle on the deficit. But less thanks for this is owed to Berlusconi than to his finance minister, Giulio Tremonti."

Siobhán Dowling

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