Dispatch from Rome: Will Italians give Silvio Berlusconi another chance?
ROME, ITALY — "He's back again. God, have mercy on us." With those words on an Italian state-run television network, Oscar-winner and comedian Roberto Benigni declared Silvio Berlusconi's sixth run in Italy's general elections as the worst catastrophe that could possibly hit the country. A nightmare, Benigni bemoaned. "Many Italians would love to retire but cannot afford it because of the economic crisis and all, while there's one man who could easily retire but has no intention of doing so." Benigni was, of course, channeling the worries of most Italians, millions of whom are surely dismayed to see Berlusconi's sparkling-white smile on TV and hear his affected voice on the radio. People have had it with his scandal-stained governments, his habit of turning starlets into politicians, and the many charges of malfeasance against him. Italians are tired of listening to his nonsense, including that "the spread between German and Italian bonds does not exist."
Mario Monti, Italy's effective if little-loved technocratic premier, resigned last Friday after 13 months in office, officially starting what promises to be a chaotic electoral campaign. Elections are expected to be held in February, and according to national polls, turnout might be the lowest in Italy's history. Citizens, particularly the young, have lost trust in their political leaders. "This country has no future, no credible leader. Why should I vote?" said Gabriella Limoni, a 24-year-old economics student.
In the meantime, civil society is moving against Berlusconi. Anti-Berlusconi social forums and Facebook pages are flooding the web, featuring petitions against the risk of the tycoon's comeback with slogans such as "Let's send him to the Bermudas" and "Basta Berlusconi" (enough of Berlusconi).
Even some of Berlusconi's own followers are turning away from him. The number of dissidents in his center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party is growing by the day. They're either founding new minor parties or allying with centrist groups. But the worst news for Berlusconi is that many traditionally center-right voters are willing to vote this time round for the center-left Democratic Party, moderate-centrist groups, or even minor popular parties like comic Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement. The general mood can be summed up quite easily: Anyone, no matter who, is better than Berlusconi.
"I've been voting center-right since Berlusconi entered politics in 1994," says Remo Di Giorgio, a pensioner from Rome. But now "I'm nauseated by his comeback. How dare he after all his sex scandals?"
So why is Berlusconi running? Because he might win. Italy has few credible alternatives. There's Monti, who is being strongly wooed by centrist parties, European institutions, and international investors to stay on and pursue his austerity agenda. Yet it's not clear where the professor stands. Centrist parties are trying to convince Monti to run at the head of a moderate coalition inspired by the European People's Party, with an ambitious road-map focused on constitutional reforms, de-regulation, enhanced economic competitiveness, and empowered youth and citizens. In such a campaign, Monti's motto would be something like: "What we have accomplished so far is nothing. The bulk of our work is still to come."
A second Monti government would give a strong and reassuring signal of continuity and stability to international markets and investors. But it's not that easy. Sure, many Italians are disgusted by Berlusconi. But they also blame Monti for tough new tax measures and fiscal policies that have dealt a severe blow to household incomes. Polls show that if the election were held today, Monti would lose — even though, by and large, Italians know deep down that the nation's economic woes are not Monti's fault, and consider him a reliable and credible leader.
"Monti was forced to save us at the last minute and did the best he could," observed Gianmario Del Rosso, a 45-year-old teacher. "He inherited from Berlusconi a desperate situation and had no choice but to cut spending and raise taxes. At least now Italy has restored its reputation and will not follow Greece's downfall." That is, unless the country gives Silvio another chance...