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a Step Too Far | the Economist

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The Economist, 4th Nov 2010. At the end of the Berlusconism?
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    Italy's beleaguered prime minister A step too far A fresh sex scandal and a former ally, Gianfranco Fini, behind his back. Is thisthe beginning of the end for Silvio Berlusconi? Nov 4th 2010 | ROME IT IS as if, in the past 18 months, Italy’s public life had described a huge, futile circle. In May2009 the country was agog at the revelation of a mysterious friendship between itsseptuagenarian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and a blonde, 18-year-old would-be actress. Ayear and a half later, attention centres on Mr Berlusconi’s links to another 18-year-old, a raven-haired daughter of Moroccan immigrants.Karima el-Mahroug, which seems to be her real name (she prefers Ruby Rubacuori, or “RubyHeartstealer”), first sashayed on to the political stage on October 26th, when it was reported thatshe had been questioned by prosecutors in Milan investigating allegations of procuring girls forprostitution that were surrounding three people close to Mr Berlusconi. Ms el-Mahroug was saidto have told the prosecutors about parties at the prime minister’s villa, near Milan, involvingnumerous women. One allegedly ended in an erotic game known as “Bunga, Bunga”. Msel-Mahroug, a runaway who worked as a belly dancer, has since said Italy’s billionaire leadergave her, unsolicited, € 7,000 ($9,800) after she had told him her hard-luck story.The affair is about more than just innuendo and the damage Mr Berlusconi is doing to Italy’simage. Last May police in Milan detained Ms el-Mahroug on suspicion of theft, but then let her goeven though she was a minor who would normally have been put in care. The commander hassaid the station took a call from Mr Berlusconi’s office, and the prime minister has admittedsending an associate to take charge of Ms el-Mahroug. But on November 2nd Milan’s chief prosecutor ruled that the police had followed the correct procedures.Mr Berlusconi’s response so far has added credence to the worst assumptions about him, sayingthat what happened at his home was his business, that he had no intention of changing his wayof life and that, anyway, it was better to be passionate about pretty girls than to be gay—aremark that appalled liberal critics, but probably went down well with core Berlusconi voters whomight otherwise be tempted by the even more reactionary appeal of the Northern League, MrBerlusconi’s coalition partner.Brazenness got the prime minister through the last bout of sex scandals in 2009. Will it work thistime? Last year’s controversies battered an otherwise strong government. Mr Berlusconi hadcleared Naples of the garbage mountains that helped topple the previous, centre-leftgovernment. He had successfully fused his own party with that of the formerly neo-fascistGianfranco Fini to create a single movement of the right, the People of Freedom (PdL). Italy’sbanks had survived the credit crisis almost unscathed, and many voters still believed thegovernment’s claim that the economy as a whole had fared better than any in Europe. Its Italy's beleaguered prime minister: A step too far | The Economisthttp://www.economist.com/node/17417722/print1 di 209/11/10 10.07  About The Economist  Media directoryStaff booksCareer opportunitiesContact usSubscribe[+] Site feedbackCopyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010. All rights reserved.Advertising infoLegal disclaimerAccessibilityPrivacy policyTerms & ConditionsHelp popularity ratings were high.Things look different today. One recent poll put the PdL just 2.5 percentage points ahead of thebiggest opposition group, the Democratic Party. PdL supporters have been drifting away from theparty since May when the government performed an abrupt U-turn, declaring that a package of painful adjustment measures was needed to prevent Italy going the way of Greece.Paralysis has spread through the administration as it has been repeatedly distracted by financialscandals involving Mr Berlusconi’s ministers and officials, and by his attempts to provide himself with immunity from justice. Last month Corriere della Sera , a newspaper, calculated that,excluding routine legislation, parliament had approved only ten new measures this year. Consob,the body that regulates the stock exchange, has been waiting for the government to give it anew president for more than four months. Ominously, the Naples garbage is piling up again.Mr Berlusconi’s critics have reacted to the latest scandal with a fury that was not detectable lastyear. More importantly, his supporters are notably less keen to defend him. Mr Berlusconi’sequal-opportunities minister, Mara Carfagna, whose own relationship with Mr Berlusconi has longbeen the subject of gossip, dissociated herself from his remark about gays. The same day, twodeputies renounced the PdL whip.There is a widespread view in Italy that the scandal marks the start of an endgame. But it couldbe a long and complex one, since the politician with the means to checkmate Mr Berlusconi is thevery one with least to gain from doing so. Last July Mr Fini led a rebellion that saw his followersin parliament detach themselves from the PdL, robbing Mr Berlusconi of his majority in the lowerhouse. They are setting up a new party. But it is not yet ready to fight an election, and Mr Finiknows that if he brings down the government he could be depicted by the prime minister ashaving betrayed the right and destabilised the country at a time when Italy, and the euro zone ingeneral, needs a steady hand.Mr Fini and his followers are due to decide on November 7th whether to leave the government. If they do, they may opt to back it in parliament until they are ready to kill it off. But will MrBerlusconi let them have the best of both worlds? Instead he could resign, arguing that hisformer ally had made his position untenable. That would allow him to go to the country in therole he likes best—that of victim.But there are risks to this course of action. Rather than dissolve parliament and call an election,President Giorgio Napolitano could decide to install a transitional, cross-party government. Evenif the president did plump for an election, the polls suggest Mr Berlusconi would free himself of Mr Fini only to become a prisoner of the Northern League’s leader, Umberto Bossi.Until the deadlock is resolved, Italy will remain a country adrift, its government unable toformulate the policies it needs (most urgently, a strategy for boosting economiccompetitiveness). Last month Emma Marcegaglia, the head of the employers’ federation,Confindustria, argued that Italy could “not allow itself” a new election. But nor can it permit itself a government that no longer governs. Europe Italy's beleaguered prime minister: A step too far | The Economisthttp://www.economist.com/node/17417722/print2 di 209/11/10 10.07
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