Italy’s tottering prime minister (The Economist)
How much longer can Silvio Berlusconi go on?
SILVIO BERLUSCONI and his coalition ally, Umberto Bossi, look increasingly like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the last scene of the 1969 Western: wounded, doomed, yet seemingly unaware of the sheer numbers ranged against them.
Already rocked by thousands of pages of evidence detailing his alleged whoremongering, Italy’s prime minister took a more serious hit on September 20th when Standard & Poor’s, a ratings agency, downgraded Italy and expressed grave doubts about the government’s ability to respond effectively to the crisis in the euro zone. Such views are widely shared in Italy. Most Italians seem to have realised that their prime minister is a liability. His approval rating has slumped below 25%. He lost the unions a long time ago; now employers have lost faith in his right-wing government’s handling of the economy.
After S&P’s downgrade Il Sole-24 Ore, a business newspaper owned by Confindustria, the bosses’ federation, said it was time for Mr Berlusconi to go. Italy, it argued, was now the euro-zone country most likely to follow Greece into turmoil. It blamed, among other things, “the fragility of its governing coalition, the embarrassing chain of scandals that directly affect the prime minister, his ministers and their immediate associates, [and a] persistent inability to take painful but necessary decisions.”
Even this is not the end of Mr Berlusconi’s troubles. He is a defendant in three trials: one on charges of embezzlement, tax-dodging and false accounting, one in which he stands accused of paying an under-age prostitute and one for alleged bribery. (He denies all the charges.) The third, in which he is accused of corrupting his former legal adviser, David Mills, is the one he is said to fear most. On September 19th the judges overseeing the case shortened the list of witnesses, making it more likely that a verdict will be reached before Mr Berlusconi is saved, as he has so often been before, by a statute of limitations.
Just as damaging are two investigations in which the prime minister is not a suspect. One involves claims that he was blackmailed by Giampaolo Tarantini, a businessman from the southern city of Bari who is alleged to have supplied more than 100 women, including numerous prostitutes, for parties at Mr Berlusconi’s homes. The other, which focuses on Mr Tarantini’s alleged pimping, led on September 15th to the release of some 5,000 pages of evidence. Besides plenty of titillation, these included claims that the prime minister had acted in ways that were not just unseemly but illicit. It was already known that one of his guests was the girlfriend of a gangster—but not that he had put an official plane at the disposal of his alleged pimp, that he had obtained a visa for him to visit China, that he had found work for one of his shapely young guests on the publicly owned RAI television network and that he had arranged for Mr Tarantini to discuss juicy contracts with senior executives of Finmeccanica, a defence firm partly owned by the state.
In most democracies any of these allegations would surely be enough to remove the prime minister. Yet although Mr Berlusconi’s position has become untenable, the manner and timing of his departure remain unclear. A recent editorial in Corriere della Sera, a daily, suggested he might follow the example of his Spanish counterpart, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and call an early election at which he would not stand, clearing the way for co-operation between government and opposition.
If the prime minister refuses to budge, he could be removed by President Giorgio Napolitano (although the head of state has said he will do this only if the government loses the confidence of parliament). Or he might be deserted by his coalition allies in the Northern League (but Mr Bossi has vowed to remain loyal). Or he might fall to a rebellion in his People of Freedom (PdL) party. But with many of its members owing their positions and livelihoods to Mr Berlusconi, that will be difficult.
This week brought signs of a possible movement in the logjam. On the day of the rating downgrade the government lost five parliamentary votes, largely because some PdL deputies failed to turn up. On the same day Mr Napolitano held meetings with senior political figures that looked like a sounding-out of opinion in anticipation of a possible government crisis.
A new government would be no panacea. As S&P’s analysts noted, resistance to the structural economic reforms that Italy so desperately needs is rife among trade unions, professional bodies, incumbent monopolies and the public sector. Ditching Mr Berlusconi might be a good start. But it would be no more than that.t would be no more than that.