The World from Berlin Under Berlusconi, Italy's 'Demise Is Unstoppable'

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi miraculously survived a confidence vote on Tuesday. But German columnists say that is bad news for Italy. With a leadership focused primarily on retaining power, they say, the big loser is the entire country's future.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to be more focused on retaining power than he is on governing the country.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to be more focused on retaining power than he is on governing the country.

Many in Italy had thought that the country might finally see the back of the "Cavaliere." But it was not to be. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi managed to survive two confidence votes on Tuesday to retain his hold on power.

It would appear, however, to be a tenuous grip.

His margin of victory in the lower house of parliament -- 314 in support of the premier with 311 against him -- suggests that Berlusconi may have significant difficulties getting legislation passed as his government moves forward. His current five-year term isn't set to end until 2013, but many observers expect there to be early elections.

"From the political and parliamentary point of view, Berlusconi scored a clear victory," Stefano Folli, a leading Italian political analyst, told the Associated Press on Tuesday. "But on the other hand, the government was weak before this vote and will be weak after it."

Still, predictions of Berlusconi's political demise have hardly been a rarity in recent years, which have been marked by all manner of scandals, ranging from allegations of sexual misconduct to corruption. The prime minister has withstood them all -- betting on his future, it would seem, is a decidedly dicey endeavour.

Frustration among the opposition, though, would appear to be extreme. Scuffles broke out in the lower house during voting on Tuesday when it became clear that some representatives were defecting and throwing their support behind Berlusconi. When the results of the lower house vote were made public, protests on the streets outside grew violent. Some 100 people were injured in the fracas, which included stone-throwing, torched cars, broken shop windows and tear gas. Police made dozens of arrests.

German columnists on Wednesday take a closer look at the political uncertainties in Italy and speculate about what the future might hold.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The majority which helped Berlusconi remain in office is not reliable; it is not enough on which to construct a stabile government. It is almost inconceivable that Berlusconi's government will have the power to push through the kinds of economic reforms the country so badly needs -- Italy, after all, is being watched closely by the markets. Even if Italy under Berlusconi has experienced the kind of leadership continuity one hasn't always associated with the country, recent years have been lost years. There is little to indicate that that will change.... Worry is growing among Italy's European Union partners that Rome's weakness is becoming permanent."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Berlusconi has managed to once again save himself -- but it is temporary. The future of his government is by no means secure. The mood could change again tomorrow; new alliances could be pieced together and fresh challenges may arise. But what Italy really needs, in the face of the country's desolate economic situation and the turbulence on the international financial markets, is a capable and stabile government."

"Instead of concentrating on urgent challenges, Berlusconi must continue to spend valuable time putting together a majority for each decision. The premier has said his government will redouble its efforts following the confidence vote. But that's what he promised after the last confidence vote in September. And he will do it again next spring. But as usual, nothing will happen."

"Increasingly, Berlusconi seems like an aging magician whose tricks come from a bygone era. They used to be successful, but now they are boring more than anything. Berlusconi continually repeats the same old promises that he has been using since 1994. For 16 years, Italy has been waiting for him to fulfil them. Just as Berlusconi uses cosmetic means (and surgery) to improve his own appearance ... he is now using nice words in an attempt to pretty up his ailing government. Not a word of self-criticism has been uttered. Berlusconi mocks reality and he ignores the numbers as if his government ... hadn't failed long ago. When Berlusconi speaks, it sounds as though he doesn't read statistics and as though he hasn't heard what critics of his economics policies have been saying -- a group that ranges from the president of Italy's central bank to leading Italian companies to the unions. He has also proven ignorant when it comes to workers, the unemployed, students and the earthquake victims of L'Aquila."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Those fond of complaining about the state of German politics should take a look at Italy and at what has passed for a sign of hope during the last couple of weeks. There, the administration led by a blustery, self-made businessman called Berlusconi was in distress because a former neo-fascist called Fini was trying to make a career move. According to surveys, new elections would have changed nothing.... But it didn't even get that far. Silvio Berlusconi can continue as the appropriate representative of a country whose demise is almost unstoppable."

"Opposition media is currently debating topics like the euro crisis and coalition skirmishes as though they had the same weight as conflicts of interest and sex with minors. As long as Berlusconi continues to cater to the public's entertainment needs and as long as he spares the majority from political pain, he can only profit from this confusion."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The laws of political gravity don't seem to apply to Berlusconi. Even if the air has recently grown thinner for him, his political opponents should not set their sights on a swift end to the 'Cavaliere.'"

"Sixteen years ago, Berlusconi entered the political arena with the promise of finally simplifying the Italian political landscape. He wanted to clarify the contours of the Italian center-right, eliminate the country's political calcification and reorient politics away from clientelism and toward common welfare.... He has failed utterly."

"As paradoxical as it sounds, that makes his success even more stunning. He has withstood a wealth of scandals and attacks that would have brought a politician of a lesser caliber to the end of their career. There is something miraculous about the dreamlike security that has helped Berlusconi remain in power. And there is a flip side to that argument too: When Berlusconi's star no longer shines, then the Italians will wake up in a wasteland in which mountains of garbage and unfinished business tower high."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Perhaps Silvio Berlusconi will see yesterday's confidence vote in parliament as food for thought. Perhaps he will realize that things cannot go on as they were -- with the high national debt, the shameful, below-average economic growth, with the corruption, the student protests and the mountains of uncollected rubbish. Possibly he will manage to rise to the occasion and come up with a plan for the future of the country. That, though, is not likely. It is more likely that he will continue to muddle through, just as long as he is able to remain in power."

-- Cathrin Schaer and Charles Hawley


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