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A teflon man in a teflon nation PDF Print E-mail
Mar 31, 2010 at 11:31 PM

Berlusconi with Renata Polverini
Umberto Bossi of the Lega
Opposition leader Bersani

Despite the predictions of many (but not me), the governing coalition led by Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi emerged from regional and local elections earlier this week with significant gains which, though nuanced, make it clear that a series of scandals and criminal charges in several different cases have barely dented the popularity of the, silver-tongued controversial real estate and TV mogul who entered politics in 1994 and has dominated it in one way or the other ever since then.

The elections involved no national posts but were widely seen as a test of the ongoing strength of the center-right coalition government that won a massive majority for a five-year term in March 2008 and, even more, of the 73-year old Berlusconi's ongoing appeal. Like it or not, and despite a significant increase in abstentionism, a majority of Italians still seem to approve of (or even like) Berlusconi's bombastic style and divisive methods of communication and, even more significantly, to disregard the fact that his government, which took power at the onset of a major world economic crisis, has accomplished relatively little.

Although he himself has a long and ongoing history of saying extremely hateful things about his opponents, Berlusconi's choice of a slogan for this year - "A party for love, and against hatred and envy", nevertheless seems to have won many Italians over, making it clear - once again - that this a country where appearances and style count much more than substance.

The vote, held on Sunday and Monday, was to elect the presidents of 13 of Italy's 20 regions and mayors in 462 of its 8000 municipalities. Before the election, 11 of those regions were governed by center-left coalitions and only two by the center-right. With the Berlusconi coalition taking back four of these (Piedmont, Campania, Lazio and Calabria), the center-left's lead has now shifted downward to only seven to six.

As I said above, the results were nuanced. The center-left held onto seven regions and won the mayoralties of several important cities including Venice, where one of Berlusconi's cabinet ministers was defeated in a bid to become mayor. Pierluigi Bersani, head of the major opposition party, the PD, said his party had held onto significant positions and was not discouraged.

Furthermore, one reason for the center-right coalition's success in several northern regions was because of the gains made not by Berlusconi's party, the PDL, but by the federalist Northern League, la Lega Nord, which also has a hard line on immigration. The Veneto, governed for ten years by a Berlusconi stalwart, now will be ruled by a "leghista". And another Northern League up-and-comer won the presidency of Piedmont, narrowly defeating the incumbent, center-left woman president who Berlusconi had said was so ugly (not at all true) he didn't know how she could look at herself in the mirror in the mornings. And several of the PDL victors, like the neo-president of Lazio, Renata Polverini, came from Alleanza Nazionale, the right-wing party that last year merged with Berlusconi's Forza Italia, and may have other loyalties.

So it may be that in the future Berlusconi himself will have less manoeuvring room within the coalition but it's not sure how much this really matters as far as government efficacy is concerned. Following this week's vote, Berlusconi said he would now press on with sweeping reforms of the tax system, of the justice system and of the political system. But he's been saying this for years and so far none of these reforms have materialized....just like the much-touted bridge over the Straits of Messina, linking Sicily to the Italian mainland. He first promised that after becoming prime minister for the first time in 1994. But there ain't no bridge there and probably never will be!


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