Berlusconi prepares to sing his praises

With Mario Monti bowing out after taking some tough austerity measures, Italy is braced for a tough election battle as Silvio Berlusconi re-enters ring, reports John Lloyd

IT’S not over till Silvio stops singing. The onetime cruise ship crooner has called his party — the People of Freedom — to order.

Most have obeyed his command to withdraw support for the technocratic government now running Italy, including those who until recently said it was a good thing old man Berlusconi was out of the running.

The pesky thing is, Berlusconi is right about some things. His party is right when it says “the situation is worse than a year ago.” Berlusconi will be right, as well, if he judges that the parties of the left — presently the likely winners in a future election — don’t rouse much enthusiasm in the electorate. And he may — just may — be right that his money, his media and the old Berlusconi magic might tip the scales toward him.

But is he right enough to win back power? It will depend on whether his fellow citizens’ disappointment at the results, so far, of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity programme is greater than their memory of how ineffectual and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was by the end of his rule. Last week Monti announced he is resigning once next year’s budget is approved.

Ask the question: Are things worse than when, a little over a year ago, Monti took over as prime minister? Monti, a former European commissioner, a much decorated economics scholar and a man with respected by world elites came into office with a hopeful sobriety.

I remember watching the four-hour press conference he and his fellow ministers gave when they began their terms. It was an extraordinary event, with long, detailed speeches by Monti and his senior colleagues.

Elsa Fornero, the work and pensions minister, broke down in tears, realising how tough the road ahead would be. Here, I thought, was a cabinet of people untouched by the sleaze that laps at Italian politics. They were preoccupied with explaining, even if in too great detail, their actions. Anxious Italians and Europeans would, if they listened carefully, understand them.

And when you ask that question about this past year, as Italians will before they vote, you get an answer: things have gotten worse. Nearly everything on which people rely — the family, savings, jobs, quality of life, consumption — is at a lower level than at the end of 2011.

The portion of families facing real difficulties — in poverty, or near it — has increased from 16% in November 2011 to 30%. Families are central everywhere, but more so in Italy than in most places. When one-third of them are suffering, it spreads a miasma of fear and despondency through society.

When prime minister Berlusconi went to the Quirinale Palace last year to hand his resignation to president Giorgio Napolitano, the country was on the verge of default. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and the dominant European politician, was begging Berlusconi to go, so much did she fear an Italian default.

The country stood on the verge of collapse, in which everything in the economy and in social life was at risk, and the threat of extremism (in a country where extremism is in living memory) loomed once more.

Could Monti have done things differently? Like the acute Stampa columnist Luca Ricolfi, I don’t think so, given what he believes.

Monti believed, and still believes, that the state deficit, of some 130% of gross domestic product, is choking Italy’s economy, and that reducing it needs to be done by raising taxes on everyone. Not just tax increases, but the increases are what people will remember when Silvio comes calling next year with a new seduction.

Monti also wanted to liberalise the economy:

nto make it easier for workers to be fired

nto free up the professions and trade guilds that operate, ferociously, to keep newcomers out

nto make it easier to hire the young

nto lower the high cost and long waiting times that starting a new business exacts

He wanted, in less than 18 months, to bring liberalisations to a country whose democratically elected governments had failed to undertake.

He did some of these things, but the parties, and the unions, and in some cases the businesses, ganged up on him. He and his colleagues were there by consent of the parties; they could hardly challenge them, since they had no mandate other than their convictions to do so. So the reforms have been partial, sketches of what might have been.

By any measure, then, a sober account of Monti-ism would be one that said, at best: He tried, but he didn’t have the time, or the support, to succeed (not the same as saying he failed). But there is one more thing to add, another factor that will work to Berlusconi’s favour, as it has in the past.

The likeliest winner of future elections, as things stand, is Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democratic Party, the main party of the centre-left. He may get, based on his present showing, as much as 30% to 35% of the vote. He was an economics minister in the last government of the left and was modestly effective, as well as quite liberal. He is no ogre.

But as Bersani’s old boss, Romano Prodi, did, Bersani will struggle most of all to govern his own side. He will have moderate Catholics on his right, various kinds of Marxists on his left — whose support he has just won after a bruising fight with challenger Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence.

Bersani probably knows what he has to do — much of it is what Monti has sought to do — but he will have at least as much trouble as Monti doing it.

Berlusconi’s political instincts have always been the best.

Never count him out till he stops singing. It seems there is at least one more aria to go.


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