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Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011
Goodbye, Mr. Berlusconi
It was an ignominious end to Mr. Silvio Berlusconi's term as Italy's prime minister. The besieged leader slipped out a back door of his office to jeers and cries of "buffoon," as Handel's Hallelujah chorus was sung and thousands of others popped sparkling wine, dancing in a conga line shouting "we're free."
It was a long fall for the man who was once seen as the savior of Italy, a new force that was supposed to revitalize a moribund country and remake it in his own energetic image.
Seventeen years ago, Mr. Berlusconi first took the prime minister's office, the embodiment of Italy's "new order" — a self-made man who became head of a multibillion dollar media empire and dreamed of remaking Italian politics in his own image.
He rode a wave of popular enthusiasm, using a soccer chant — "Forza Italia," or "Let's go Italy!" — as his rallying cry (and the name of his political party). But Mr. Berlusconi's commitment to the rejuvenation of Italy seemed to pale in comparison with his commitment to protecting his personal and business interests.
Rather than breaking down the old order and leveling the political and economic playing field, he seemed more interested in taking down his enemies and doling out spoils to his allies. Considerable time and energy was spent passing legislation that immunized the prime minister from legal challenge.
Yet that did not seem to bother his supporters too much. Despite Mr. Berlusconi's ups and downs — he served three terms as prime minister — Forza Italia maintained support from about one-third of the electorate, winning three national elections. Despite the yawning gap between the prime minister's call for reform and his actions, his backers merely saw him as "their man," exploiting the system as in the past, but this time on their behalf. Little wonder, then, that he became Italy's longest-serving postwar prime minister
But the endless series of scandals took its toll. Allegations that he hosted sex parties — "bunga bunga" is now a part of the Italian political lexicon — and that he had an affair with a teenage Moroccan woman — known as Ruby Rubacuore, "Ruby the Heartstealer" — turned even many of his hardcore supporters against him.
For all his personal failings, it was the country's problems that brought Mr. Berlusconi down. As Greece flirted with default, markets scrutinized other nations' debt and Italy did not inspire confidence. The economy is projected to grow an anemic 0.6 percent this year and an even more paltry 0.3 percent in 2012. That is not enough to service Italy's debt of 1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion), 120 percent of its entire economy; more than 300 billion ($410 billion), more than all of Greece's entire debt, will come due next year alone.
A Greek default would have damaged the euro and the dreams of a united Europe. But Italy is the third largest economy on the continent and orders of magnitude larger; a run on its economy would have been devastating.
As European leaders struggled to contain the Greek crisis, Mr. Berlusconi's pledges to take action rang increasingly hollow as his personal problems undermined his political credibility. Yields on Italian bonds leaped upward as faith in his capacity to act plummeted. Mr. Berlusconi resigned after the legislature on Nov. 12 passed a package of reforms demanded by the European Union.
Former European commissioner Mario Monti has been picked to lead the next government. Mr. Monti is a well-respected economist and a political neutral, who will lead a Cabinet of technocrats to help guide the country.
Markets reacted well, pushing bond yields back down to tolerable limits. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Ms. Christine Lagarde, called Mr. Monti a "quality" economist with whom she had long enjoyed a "extremely warm" and effective relationship. Given the IMF's role in monitoring Italy's efforts to get its house in order, this vote of confidence is an important signal.
All of Italy's political parties have vowed to support the new government; how long that pledge remains valid is up in the air. Mr. Berlusconi's party has said it will support Mr. Monti as long as he gets the economy moving and reduces the nation's debt. It has been pushing for early elections — the current Parliament is scheduled to run through 2013 — confident that Mr. Berlusconi's appeal remains strong and it can keep a hand on the reins of power.
All political parties anticipate that the austerity measures that Mr. Monti will be forced to adopt will turn the public against him.
Mr. Berlusconi has said he will not run for office again, but most observers agree that he has too much at stake to leave politics to others. By one count, he has 22 court dates scheduled through May. He should devote himself to those efforts, rather than working the system to protect himself. His country needs a full-time prime minister who will focus on the substantial reforms that are demanded of it.
The question is whether the Italian people have the stomach for the all-embracing reform that is being forced on them. If they are not, then Mr. Berlusconi or someone like him will again captivate — and distract — the nation from the hard work that is required.