This article originally appeared in
     
27 June, 2006
   
 
Defeat could signal end for Berlusconi

Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (27/06/06)

In voting that concluded on Monday,
Italians by a large margin rejected a reform that
would have radically
changed the way the government operates by increasing the
power
of the prime minister and giving more authority to regional governments.

But the vote may go down in history as the beginning of the political end for the
country's
colorful and controversial former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi's political obituary has been

written before - when his first government
collapsed after seven months in 1994,
even his allies doubted he would ever
return to power - and he has come back
time after time to surprise observers.
But there are reasons to believe that the
69-year-old media tycoon may really fade
into the sunset this time around.

Berlusconi has looked increasingly desperate since his wafer-thin defeat to Romano
Prodi. In two proxy votes, he and his allies have performed less impressively each time
out, first in voting for regional governments in May and then the referendum vote on
Sunday and Monday. Berlusconi has still failed to concede the April vote and on the
eve of the vote for the referendum - which was voted down 62 percent to 38 percent
- he boldly predicted an upset victory even as his allies tried to find a silver lining in the
likely defeat.

But the referendum itself may represent Berlusconi's Achilles' heel: debts to his allies.
The Berlusconi government put the hodgepodge of reforms on the electoral calendar
early this year, when a victory in the April elections still seemed possible. But it was
doomed from the start.

Berlusconi ally Umberto Bossi - who rose to power in the early 1990s advocating that
the country's wealthy north withdraw from Italy to form its own country - threatened to
leave the government if the issue of empowering Italian regions was not put to a vote.
So as not to lose the support of Gianfranco Fini, the head of the party that evolved
from Benito Mussolini's fascists, a plank about directly electing the prime minister and
increasing that office's power was added. To appease other allies, reforms to tax
laws, the rules governing cultural spending, and the size, powers and makeup of
parliament were all thrown in.

"The reform was such a mixed bag that there was something in it for almost everyone
to oppose," says James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of
Rome.

The same could be said about much of Berlusconi's political agenda in recent years.

Berlusconi and his allies rose to prominence a dozen years ago with a political slogan -
"Forza Italia!", or "Let's Go Italy!" - derived from a football cheer and an easy-to-
understand political message that seemed in direct contrast to the convoluted views
from the political establishment still reeling from the so-called "clean hands" scandal
that ruined dozens of political careers with allegations of corruption, bribery and
influence peddling.

But over the last years, Berlusconi et al have become the establishment themselves.
The jumble of laws and compromises that made up this proposed reforms would have
been laughed out of existence by Berlusconi and his allies a decade ago. Now, it
probably was the best they could do.

Of course, Prodi is far from the breath of fresh air that Berlusconi must have seemed
to be when he first arrived on the political scene. But the fact that the professorial and
uncharismatic Prodi is increasingly able to siphon support away from a flamboyant
figure like Berlusconi probably says as much about Berlusconi's prospects as it does
about Prodi.

After winning April's vote by a miniscule 0.018 percentage points, most predicted Prodi
would manage to survive only a few months as prime minister. Now - as much
because of Berlusconi's increasing ineptitude as because of his own strengths - Prodi
is looking stronger than ever.

With the victory on the referendum, it seems that if Prodi surpasses the next obstacle
by passing the government's 2007 budget later this year then the smart money might
shift to his government emulating Berlusconi by lasting its entire five-year term, a rare
event in Italy.

Where does that leave Berlusconi? With an estimated net worth of €10 billion (US$12.5
billion) and control of the continent's largest media empire, Berlusconi won't be at a loss
for options to compensate for his increasing political irrelevance. And despite the fact
that he'll turn 70 in September, there is still plenty of time for him to be forgotten and
then remembered again.

Those eager to dance on Berlusconi's political grave should remember that in Italy, age
is almost never an issue. When 85-year-old Carlo Azeglio Ciampi announced he would
not seek another seven-year term as Italian president, the leading candidate to replace
him at one point became 87-year-old former prime minister Giulio Andreotti. Eventually,
legislators decided to give the job to a relative youngster, Giorgio Napolitano, aged 80.
It's worth remembering that Berlusconi could re-enter the political scene as late as
2016 and still be younger than Napolitano is now.


Eric J. Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.
Silvio Berlusconi - Wikipedia