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Berlusconi makes himself indispensable

December 15, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: December 15 2010

Italy has been saying a long goodbye to ever since his first government collapsed in 1994 after a few months. But by scraping through a confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday, the scandal-ridden prime minister has again demonstrated his powers of survival.

Whether the 74-year-old billionaire can last long with a majority of just three votes in the chamber of deputies remains in doubt, with early elections still a likely outcome. For the moment, however, Mr Berlusconi can rightly claim there is no alternative – either in opposition or from within his own party.

In two days of heated parliamentary debate this week that climaxed in a brawl, opposition leaders portrayed the prime minister as a corrupt, hard-partying, self-interested businessman who had brought shame to Italy on the international stage while passing laws to evade pending court cases against him. US diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks talking of Mr Berlusconi’s “wild parties” were brandished.

Yet a closer reading of those cables reveals not just prescient analysis by the Americans of Mr Berlusconi’s ability to cope with his mounting domestic problems, but also his usefulness, whatever his flaws.

“It might be tempting to dismiss Berlusconi as a frivolous interlocutor, with his personal foibles, public gaffes and sometimes unpredictable policy judgment, but we believe this would be a mistake,” Elizabeth Dibble, a senior diplomat, wrote in a briefing for Barack Obama, US president, in June 2009. “Despite his faults, Berlusconi has been the touchstone of Italian politics for the last 15 years, and every indication is that he will be around for years to come.”

Misgivings were noted over a possibly corrupt relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Italy’s commercial ties with Iran, but the US embassy in Rome still pointed out that Mr Berlusconi “has invariably come through on our top [military] requests, despite domestic political risks”.

US military facilities with 15,000 personnel on six bases in Italy “provide unmatched freedom of action and are critical to our ability to project stability into the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa”, Ms Dibble wrote.

Mr Berlusconi’s ability to have close personal ties with Mr Putin while remaining important for Washington is mirrored by the clientelism that characterises the twin Italian worlds of politics and business.

“If Silvio Berlusconi is irredeemably tarnished by the manner in which he has ruled Italy, his capacity to remain in office also reflects the way that Berlusconismo has changed Italy,” comments Geoff Andrews, author and academic. “It is a political regime which has become characterised by the view that everyone has their price,” he adds. “Berlusconismo has corroded the heart of Italian public life.”

A lever of power for Mr Berlusconi – and other party leaders – is the electoral system passed under his previous government that even the official in charge once described as “crap”. Italians do not choose their MPs, voting instead for a list chosen by party leaders that can then be manipulated after the results are in.

Opposition politicians alleged that, well ahead of the confidence vote, Mr Berlusconi’s lobbyists homed in on those deputies who knew, for one reason or another, that they had no future in their own party but could be guaranteed a place on the prime minister’s handpicked lists, joining his lawyers, doctor and even dental hygienist.

“We are an oligarchy without parties,” admitted Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of the centrist UDC party and a former ally of Mr Berlusconi.

Just before the vote Mr Berlusconi planted a public kiss on Mr Casini and afterwards invited his party to rejoin the fold in an enlarged coalition. Mr Casini refused, leaving Mr Berlusconi to acknowledge that he would need to attract individual MPs to shore up his majority.

All this does not make for stable government, and despite Mr Berlusconi’s age and questions over his health there is no clear successor in the ruling party. As one official critical of the premier put it: “There is no exit strategy. There is only exit. That is the problem.”

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