Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Berlusconi lives to fight another day

Just before Italy closed down for August, political commentators were writing Silvio Berlusconi’s political obituary. As so often in these cases, news of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

True, he had done badly in the various elections (though probably no worse than other European leaders); true, he has had to give in to his coalition partners in one or two issues, notably on the identity of the new Commissioner, but Mario Monti had done two stints already; true there had been gossip when he disappeared for weeks on end to reappear with a different shape to his eyes and when his wife wrote her autobiography (can't wait for Cherie's).

Nevertheless, Berlusconi seems to have weathered it all and gone on holiday with a light heart. He has pulled the coalition together once more and forced several tax and pension reforms through, using the risky method of confidence votes.

He has once again shrugged off criticisms of his business affairs and, presumably, his wife's comments on his inability to grow up. And he has retained his greatest asset: the longest serving Italian prime minister since 1945.

Berlusconi can say and no doubt will say that he has given Italy something it badly lacked: political stability. This is simultaneously and advantage and a disadvantage. By the time the elections come round and if the government does not fall before that, Berlusconi will have done four years and a bit. The Italian electorate may find that rather dull. Questions may also be raised as to what has actually been achieved beyond longevity. Romano Prodi, the contender, will presumably focus on those two points.

In fact, Prodi's greatest argument is going to be Berlusconi's known "gaffes" in foreign affairs. These are not really "gaffes" so much as often comments that other people make in private. His famous description of western culture being superior ot Islamic may well have offended some people but like Kilroy’s similar comment on a lower level, also found some response. His Atlanticism has divided Italian opinion but much will depend on developments in Iraq. In any case, Italian anti-americanism is not of the ferocious French or the niggling British variety.

Berlusconi's unashamed Italian rather than "European" attitude to the world may well resonate in Italy, despite the country's record of slavish acceptance, at least theoretically, of all things "European". The times they are a changin' and the inflation that followed the introduction of the euro, as one of our correspondents has pointed out, has caused a certain amount of discontent.

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