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Berlusconi suffers post-election blues

June 10, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

published on FT June 10 2009

Gordon Brown’s Labour party sank at the polls in a storm of scandals and infighting, but Silvio Berlusconi has emerged from his own much publicised personal troubles far ahead of his centre-left opposition and among the most popular of Europe’s 27 heads of government.

Compounding their failure to present a credible alternative, Italy’s opposition Democrats also suffered crushing defeats in local elections held last weekend.

And yet, as even his supporters concede, Mr Berlusconi is not happy.

Having won three general elections and governed for seven of the past 15 years while enlarging his vast media-based fortune, Mr Berlusconi, a 72-year-old billionaire and grandfather, should be looking at four more years as prime minister with a large majority — and then comfortable retirement.

Instead Mr Berlusconi is reported to be agonising over why his newly formed centre-right People of Liberty party – a merger of his old Forza Italia with the post-fascist National Alliance – polled 2.8m votes fewer and lost two percentage points compared with last year’s general elections.

Superficially it might seem that votes were lost in the left-driven
storm over his wife’s declaration of pending divorce and his
relationship with an 18-year-old would-be model (despite repeated
denials of intimacy).

Indeed, even Giuliano Ferrara, an intellectual and long-time admirer,
publicly compared the prime minister and his lavish entertaining of
starlets with pop singer Michael Jackson – “a giant of post-modern
narcissism” — in their construction of islands of “eternal youth”.

In his typically painstaking post-electoral dissection, Mr Berlusconi,
as the prestigious owner of loss-making AC Milan football club, also
recognized that the forced sale to Real Madrid of Kaka, his Brazilian
playmaker, cost him at the ballot box.

More fundamentally, it would seem that the root of his faltering at the
polls – while still attracting the support of more than one in three
Italians – runs deeper than his pockets and patronage can provide.

His legacy and battle for succession are at stake. More than that, when
Mr Berlusconi eventually leaves the political scene – and it is widely
believed he covets the position of head of state – he will lose the
immunity from prosecution given to him by a compliant parliament,
leaving him vulnerable to more “persecution” by the courts.

When the tycoon burst onto the political scene in 1994 – driven, as Mr
Ferrara explains, by a need to protect his business from a moralistic
and left-wing judiciary – Mr Berlusconi cast himself as the outsider,
the anti-establishment candidate untainted by the “bribesville” scandals
tearing apart the old post-war order.

But as Ilvo Diamanti, a sociologist, maintains in his Political Map of
Italy, the cold war divisions perpetuated themselves in another form. Mr
Berlusconi has become the establishment.

Noting that 80 per cent of Italians never move from where they and their
parents were born, and that only some seven per cent change their
allegiance at the polls, Mr Diamanti says Italian politics is
territorially based.

Mr Berlusconi’s  People of Liberty and the allied Northern League have
replaced the defunct Christian Democrats in much of the north and south
of Italy, while the Democrats hang on – less successfully – in the
centre to the strongholds of the former Communists.

“Berlusconi is the man of networks,” writes Mr Diamanti, explaining his
skill in forming coalitions out of Italy’s territorially mixed cultures
while nurturing anti-communist passions long after the ideology’s
demise.

Mr Berlusconi’s core support has steadily slipped from the peak of about
29 per cent that Forza Italia won in 2001.

Responding to and even feeding fears of globalisation and rapid social
change brought in part by surging immigration, Mr Berlusconi has chosen
an increasingly nationalistic, protectionist stance, declaring himself
hostile to the idea of a “multi-ethnic” Italy.

Not surprisingly, it was the xenophobic Northern League that scored a
large increase in votes, even stealing a chunk from Mr Berlusconi’s
party.

The prime minister appears no longer the absolute master of his
coalition.

This was already evident yesterday when he caved into the demands of
Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, saying he was no longer
supportive of a referendum this month that would change the electoral
system in favour of individual parties rather than coalitions.

Plans to change the constitution to enhance the powers of the prime
minister are also in doubt. For that, many Italians will be grateful.

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