Berlusconi after Milan: wrecked or weakened?
Italians seem to be getting over the “Berlusconi effect”
What followed the announcement that the Italian city of Milan had elected a leftist mayor last week looked like nothing short of a colour revolution. Reminiscent of pro-West protesters in Ukraine, some 40,000 Milanese swarmed to Piazza del Duomo, the city’s main square, sporting orange T-shirts and balloons, the campaign colour of local lawyer Giuliano Pisapia, who’d just won at the polls. “Berlusconi go home,” the orange wave was chanting, and “Berlusconi, you are finished.”
Many analysts agree. The latest round of local elections, which saw some 1,300 towns, cities and provinces vote across Italy, has been a bitter awakening for Italy’s conservative prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. (…) Sensing that the Milanese were less than happy with Moratti’s record in office, Berlusconi turned the mayoral election into a referendum on himself, says Marco Cacciotto, a Milan-based political marketing consultant. “He completely eclipsed her,” he says of the PM, who even entered his own name on the ballot. Berlusconi was following a well-known script, says Cacciotto, a strategy that always worked: Mobilizing voters through hyperbolic rhetoric and his personal charisma.
This time, though, there was no “Berlusconi effect.” During the first round of ballots, the centre-right lost 80,000 votes compared to the previous elections of 2006, while the left-wing opposition scored roughly as it did five years earlier. Many conservative voters, in other words, vowed to stay at home or cast their ballot for third candidates who had no chance of winning, inflicting a “hemorrhage of votes” to the centre-right and sending a clear message about the power of the PM’s charms.(…)The demise of Berlusconi could be the end of an entire party system, says Ignazi, not unlike what happened in the early 1990s, when a slew of corruption scandals and trials known as Mani Pulite (clean hands) wiped out the entire political class that had ruled Italy since the end of World War II.
Still, some are warning it might be too soon to pen Berlusconi’s political post mortem. It’s hard to keep track of how many times his adversaries at home and abroad have predicted his inexorable downfall only to watch him climb back up opinion polls and electoral ballots, says Cacciotto. “Berlusconi is incredibly resilient,” he adds. Not to mention the utter lack of alternatives to his leadership. The left has been in disarray for years, struggling to come up with a coalition arrangement that will bring together centrist currents with the more radical fringes. Significantly, winning left-wing candidates in both Milan and Naples belonged to minor parties, and not Italy’s major centre-left force, the Democratic Party. Voters may be reluctant to give Berlusconi the boot if they are uncertain about who is going to replace him, says Cacciotto. A new centrist grouping called the Third Pole, supported by business magnates such as Luca di Montezemolo, head of Ferrari, runs into the same problem—with Italians leery of untested political novelties, they’re more likely to opt for the devil they know.
Whether Berlusconi is truly finished or just weakened, then, Italy seems to be in for a period of political paralysis that could further damage its economy. But if the current turmoil serves to sweep to power a new, bold, reformist government when spring comes, many Italians will think it will have been well worth it.