The end of Berlusconi? Not so fast
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said he will resign after Parliament passes austerity measures prescribed by the EU. Is this the end of his 20 years in politics? FRANCE 24 spoke to a specialist in Italian media.
F24: What are the consequences of Berlusconi’s resignation? What can we expect in its aftermath?
P.M.: As soon as Berlusconi steps down, President Napolitano will take charge of things and summon all political parties to try to form a new government. Then one of three things could happen: the different parties in the Chamber of Deputies, including the People of Freedom Party (PDL) and the Northern League, agree on an alternative to Berlusconi.
In this scenario, there are two favourites to become prime minister: Mario Monti, former European commissioner who is popular in the financial sector, and Giulio Tremonti, a brilliant economist in the current government [as finance minister]. But there’s a very small chance of that happening, since the Northern League has already said no.
The second scenario is that the majority opens up to include the centrists. That would mean the Northern League and the People of Freedom Party uniting with the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, retaining their majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Berlusconi wouldn’t remain leader but would hand over power to Angelino Alfano, who has been justice minister and secretary general of the PDL since 2008, or Gianna Letta, his right-hand man and faithful advisor.
The third scenario would be that President Napolitano does not manage to form a new government because there is no clear majority. In this case, he would dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and organise early elections. But they would not be before the end of February and Italy would suffer three months of political instability with the added pressure of the economic crisis mounting with every passing hour.
F24: Berlusconi is therefore once again proving his political savviness with this resignation…
P.M.: Napolitano is stuck between a rock and a hard place and Berlusconi is taking a risk because polls show him losing. But if his party ended up winning the election, he could run for president in 2013.
Italy is playing a bit of a risky game. Before Berlusconi, Italy was politically unstable. Berlusconi has been at the head of the government for more than 3,300 days over four terms – more than any of his predecessors.
His departure is a solution, but it is also a problem. If Berlusconi leaves, who will take his place? What alliances will be forged? Will there be stability? Berlusconi is playing on these uncertainties.
F24: You’ve talked about Berlusconi’s cultural influence. What do you mean by that?
P.M.: Italy is the only democracy in the world where the prime minister wields such influence over the media. Berlusconi possesses the second-largest fortune in the country; he owns a media empire, in which he, along with his family, is still the main shareholder. He has filled Italians’ collective imagination for the past thirty years by developing a new commercial culture, the culture of “entertainment”, of business, of skepticism toward politics. And that was before he even held office.
Though it's not the same context, the kind of revolution he sparked is similar to the one led by Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain. So after 20 years in office and 30 years in the media, despite his declining popularity, Italians still admire him. One needs to understand that Italy – which this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of its unification – has a political culture that is rather recent. 20 years of leadership out of 150 years of political history is not negligible.
F24: You say we have not seen the last of Berlusconi. But his resignation is an admission of failure. What led him to this breaking point?
P.M.: There are several factors at play. First, an internal political crisis. In December 2010, the opposition, led by Gianfranco Fini, who had just left the government coalition, presented a no-confidence motion against Berlusconi. Then Berlusconi’s party was beaten in local elections and lost four referendums last May.
There’s also the usual erosion of power. Add to that his various personal fiascoes, which caused him to lose support among women, Christians, and the Vatican; his legal woes in a country in which judges are very respected; the unhappiness of a population worried about poverty and unemployment among youth and families in the south of Italy; and finally the economic and financial crisis.
This multi-factor crisis explains his current decline in the polls: 69 percent of Italians no longer trust him. The reversal of his political fortunes was inevitable, but this does not mean the end of Berlusconi.
Pierre Musso is a professor of media and communication specialised in Italian media at the University of Rennes II. He has published books on Italian television, Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.