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Berlusconi sings as the government crumbles

July 19, 2010

by Guy Dinmore, published on July 19 2010

Seven months after he was hit in the face by a deranged man brandishing a souvenir model of Milan’s cathedral, Silvio Berlusconi last night was set to return to the scene of the crime to receive a prize celebrating his charisma and leadership.

Tabloids were feverishly speculating whether Italy’s prime minister — a former cruise ship crooner – would perform a duet in the Gothic church alongside special guest Charles Aznavour.

France’s 86-year-old singer-celebrity is on a global farewell tour that began four years ago. With his government rupturing over various corruption scandals, many in Italy are asking if the time has come for Mr Berlusconi, 73, to follow suit.

With open talk of the post-Berlusconi era, Italy has been plunged into debate over whether a spate of corruption investigations involving ministers, businessmen, judges and politicians – some with alleged links to the mafia – signify a return to the early 1990s when the political establishment collapsed amidst the “tangentopoli” (bribesville) scandals originating in Milan.

For Giulio Tremonti, finance minister and one of several potential successors to Mr Berlusconi, the latest probe into a suspected secret society involving the prime minister’s closest allies is just about a few “rotten apples” or at most a “box-full”.

“But the tree is not rotten, and the orchard is not rotten,” Mr Tremonti insisted in a weekend newspaper interview in which he reaffirmed his loyalty to the prime minister and ruled out talk of early elections or formation of an emergency government.

Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the pro-opposition Repubblica daily, was scathing in reply.

“This is the slime that is rising, the smell that comes from the palaces of power,” he wrote, predicting that Mr Berlusconi would try to resolve his mid-term crisis by calling snap elections.

Il Giornale, a daily in the Berlusconi family media empire, added to the sense that the prime minister is navigating treacherous waters by urging Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament and co-founder of the ruling People of Liberty party, to carry out his unspoken but clear threat to lead a breakaway faction out of the coalition.

Mr Fini, whose long career has seen him transit neo-fascism to post-fascism and beyond into the embrace of more centrist politics, remains a key player. But it is doubtful that he has the numbers in parliament to bring the government down, even if he wanted to.

Mr Berlusconi’s biggest problem, insiders say, is not so much his difficulties in parliament in passing controversial legislation – including his immunity from prosecution in two trials of his own, and a bill that would curb wiretapping by police and prevent the media from publishing transcripts.

Rather it is the sense that the system of “clientelismo” – exchanging of favours – is breaking down under the zealous scrutiny of a relatively small group of prosecutors.

Having to accept the resignation of two ministers and a senior Treasury minister since May is seen as a sign that Mr Berlusconi is no longer strong enough to protect his own.

Andrea Romano, director of the Italia Futura think-tank — brainchild of Luca di Montezemolo, the head of Ferrari who is another possible leader in waiting – says the widening corruption investigations mark the end of what Italians call the Second Republic that followed the collapse of the first with “tangentopoli”.

“We are seeing the failure of the Second Republic to start a new political history in our country,” he told the Financial Times. “More and more Italians are losing faith in their political parties.”

Nonetheless Mr Romano believes that Mr Berlusconi, who burst onto the scene as the “anti-politician” in 1994, will make his “final bet” and call snap elections next spring.

If he can win a fresh mandate – and despite falling ratings he remains relatively popular – then Mr Berlusconi could crown his career by engineering his appointment by parliament as head of state in 2013.

Such speculation is fuelled by Pierluigi Bersani’s ineffectual leadership of the opposition Democrats. Following his suggestion that the prime minister should “take a break” rather than spend the summer reorganising his party, Corriere della Sera, a mainstream daily, commented: “If this is all the head of the opposition can say then it would be better to summon the first passer-by on the street.”

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