The resignation of Italys prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, after the crushing defeat of his governments centre-right coalition in the regional elections of 3-4 April calls to mind the immortal line of a character in Lampedusas great novel of aristocratic decline in 19th-century Sicily, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard): If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
Italys longest-serving post-war leaders response to the results can be seen, in short, as part of a sophisticated attempt to prolong his rule. Berlusconis likely reassembly of the four-party Casa delle Libertà (House of Freedoms) coalition on 22 April, following meetings with President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, gives Il Cavaliere another of his several political lives.
Yet the scale of Berlusconis electoral humiliation raises fresh questions about his long-term political survival. If todays regional results were repeated on a national basis in the general election due in 2006, the centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi would win as decisively as the Casa delle Libertà did in 2001.
Why Berlusconi lost
The elections took place in thirteen of Italys twenty regions, eight of which were controlled by the Casa delle Libertà [composed of his own Forza Italia (Forward, Italy!), the Lega Nord (Northern League), the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (AN) and the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC)]. Of the eight regions, the coalition lost six to the centre-left opposition (Piemonte and Liguria in the north; Lazio in the centre; Abruzzo, Puglia and Calabria in the south). The coalitions vote collapsed by about 2 million compared with the regional elections in 2000.
Berlusconi had said repeatedly that the elections were not to be considered a test for his government. But the size of its losses could not be dismissed, and a post-election drama became a crisis on 14-15 April when the AN called for a parliamentary vote of confidence and the Christian Democrats four cabinet ministers including the deputy prime minister, Marco Follini resigned. On 20 April, Silvio Berlusconi himself resigned after a meeting with the president.
Why did Berlusconi lose? Some political experts say that Italians were disappointed because the billionaire media mogul, owner of three of Italys private television stations and AC Milan football club, simply failed to deliver the promise of his 2001 pact with Italians: an ambitious plan to liberalise Italys embedded economy through privatisation, cutting bureaucracy and taxes, and reforming the legal system.
This analysis is short-sighted. Berlusconi won the 2001 general election essentially for the negative reason that Italians were fed up with the ruling lUlivo (Olive tree) coalition, whose five years in office had been punctuated by four governments and three prime ministers. The revolving-door syndrome was exemplified in the way that the winner of the 1996 elections, Romano Prodi, resigned in 1998 after losing his parliamentary majority by just one vote.
The Italians were then and are still disappointed in their leaders. But there is a difference. They punished lUlivo mainly because it was a general political mess, while their disaffection with the Casa delle Libertà is rooted in two particular issues. First, the mismanaged entry to the eurozone in January 2002, which has caused a price bubble, a collapse in consumer confidence and rising social tensions; second, Italys active support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (where the shooting by United States troops of intelligence officer Nicola Calipari on 4 March, after he had helped rescue the Il Manifesto journalist Giuliana Sgrena, seems to have hardened peoples opposition).
Italian voters care less about the failure of Berlusconis reform programme, his legal entanglements or his unresolved conflicts of interest than many foreign observers often think; but nor do they credit him with the relative political stability of his period in office, his state school reforms, reductions in income taxes, liberalisation of labour markets and investments in public infrastructure. It is simply that, as consumers and as citizens, they blame the government when things go wrong.
The election result reopened the political rivalry among the four coalition parties that erupted after their defeat in the June 2004 European elections. The main schism is along a south/north, state intervention/free-market axis between the UDC and the AN on one side, and Forza Italia and the pro-devolution Lega Nord on the other.
Berlusconis severe losses in the south (including Lazio and Puglia historic strongholds of the centre-right, as well as Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Abruzzo) led the UDC and AN to press for major policy changes before the 2006 general elections. This intra-coalition fight resembles the ancièn regime politics when partitocracy an endemic disease of Italian politics ruled.
Berlusconis reconstruction of the Casa delle Libertà has won him a temporary reprieve. The restored coalition will be difficult to hold together, especially in the context of a troubled economy: gross domestic product (gdp) is stagnant, the budget deficit is increasing and public debt (more than Italys gdp) is enormous. But five elements of Italys current political condition may give Berlusconi grounds for cautious optimism.
First, the peculiarities of the regional elections. Three of the ruling coalitions defeats were to popular opposition candidates: former ministers (Claudio Burlando in Liguria, Agazio Loiero in Calabria) and a well-known senator and trade unionist (Ottaviano del Turco in Abruzzo). In Lazio, the situation was quite confused by a political scandal involving the far-right Alternativa Sociale founded by Alessandra Mussolini; and in Puglia, the surprise victory of Nichi Vendola (communist, homosexual) over regional president Raffaele Fitto (telegenic dad) owed something to local factors, including Vendolas capacity to win support from industrialists.
Second, abstention. The poll was overshadowed by the death of Pope John Paul II the evening before. True, the 71.5% turnout compared well to 73.3% in the 2000 regional elections, but was still lower than the 2001 general election (81.3%). The majority of abstentionists, according to surveys, were centre-right voters. Berlusconis renewed engagement could regain those votes.
Third, Berlusconis capacity to survive crises. Il Cavaliere recovered to win power after the fall of his first, seven-month government in 1994 and his election defeat in 2001. He has also withstood several legal charges over his past business dealings, including involvement in bribing judges, without completely losing voters support.
Fourth, Berlusconis main opposition rival. Romano Prodi is at 66 only three years younger than Berlusconi, and has had a long political career starting in 1978 (including presidency of the European Commission, 1999-2004). He does not easily symbolise a future beyond either partitocracy or Berlusconism. The regional elections highlighted the need for a new generation of politicians like Piero Marrazzo (the victor in Lazio) and Nichi Vendola; but their time on the national stage has not yet come.
Fifth, the fragmentation of the opposition. The Union alliance contains eight parties of very different shades: from the far-left Rifondazione comunista to the centre-right Unione Democratici per lEuropa (Udeur) and Antonio di Pietros Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values). It includes supporters of Nato and opponents of globalisation, gay activists and Catholic moralists. Only one point of agreement holds them together: fighting Berlusconi.
Will it be enough? All political careers end in failure, an English politician once wrote. But even after Italys electoral mini-earthquake, it may be too early to write Silvio Berlusconis political obituary.