Berlusconi after Milan: wrecked or weakened?

Italians seem to be getting over the “Berlusconi effect”

Newly elected mayor of Milan, Giuliano Pisapia (OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

What followed the announcement that the Italian city of Milan had elected a leftist mayor last week looked like nothing short of a colour revolution. Reminiscent of pro-West protesters in Ukraine, some 40,000 Milanese swarmed to Piazza del Duomo, the city’s main square, sporting orange T-shirts and balloons, the campaign colour of local lawyer Giuliano Pisapia, who’d just won at the polls. “Berlusconi go home,” the orange wave was chanting, and “Berlusconi, you are finished.”

Many analysts agree. The latest round of local elections, which saw some 1,300 towns, cities and provinces vote across Italy, has been a bitter awakening for Italy’s conservative prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. In Naples, where his centre-right coalition was expected to prevail, a rival candidate swept to victory with a 30 percentage point margin. Right-wing mayors in Cagliari, Sardinia’s main city, and Trieste, an important port city in the country’s north-east, were unceremoniously unseated, and even in the small town of Arcore—which houses the villa that is the PM’s primary residence—a novice opposition candidate comfortably beat the centre-right incumbent. The deadliest blow, though, was in Milan, where the left won with a convincing 55 per cent.

“It’s a sensational event,” says Stefano Folli, a columnist for the business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. Milan, the prime minister’s hometown and the base from which he launched his business and political careers, “is the very symbol of Berlusconi’s political season,” he adds. The voters’ final verdict, delivered in run-off elections held on May 29 and 30, came on the heels of a campaign that was vicious even by the standards of Italy’s notoriously brutal politics. The PM and his allies warned that a left-wing mayor would turn the city into anything from a haven for nomads and Islamists to a prime destination for gay tourism. Milan, one of the world’s fashion centres and Italy’s business and financial hub, would become a “gypsyopolis” and “Europe’s last communist capital,” they said.

And, remarkably, the electoral show was dominated by the PM himself, rather than Milan’s conservative incumbent mayor Letizia Moratti, a darling of the centre-right who also served as education minister. Sensing that the Milanese were less than happy with Moratti’s record in office, Berlusconi turned the mayoral election into a referendum on himself, says Marco Cacciotto, a Milan-based political marketing consultant. “He completely eclipsed her,” he says of the PM, who even entered his own name on the ballot. Berlusconi was following a well-known script, says Cacciotto, a strategy that always worked: Mobilizing voters through hyperbolic rhetoric and his personal charisma.

This time, though, there was no “Berlusconi effect.” During the first round of ballots, the centre-right lost 80,000 votes compared to the previous elections of 2006, while the left-wing opposition scored roughly as it did five years earlier. Many conservative voters, in other words, vowed to stay at home or cast their ballot for third candidates who had no chance of winning, inflicting a “hemorrhage of votes” to the centre-right and sending a clear message about the power of the PM’s charms.

Some have already written off the result as the beginning of the end for Berlusconism, the personality cult of Italy’s flamboyant leader that has dominated the country’s politics for the last 17 years. According to Piero Ignazi, a professor of political science at the university of Bologna, the electoral defeat is a sign that Berlusconi has lost the key support of the Milanese bourgeoisie, the country’s business elite. The city’s industrialists had hoped that Berlusconi, Italy’s most famous entrepreneur, would fix the economy, and govern with an eye to their needs, says Ignazi. But Italy’s GDP has virtually flatlined since the early 2000s, and the government’s reform agenda bogged down by Berlusconi’s recurrent troubles with the judiciary (he is currently defending himself from accusations of corruption, tax fraud, and paying for sex with an underage prostitute in three different trials in Milan). “The bourgeoisie had been expecting that Berlusconi would embody a moderate, liberal right-wing force,” says Ignazi, “but things have gone in the opposite direction, towards a populist party strongly centred on the leader.”

In fact, Berlusconi casts such a long shadow on his People of Freedom party (PdL) that many predict that the group will simply dissolve if its leader truly proves to be politically defunct. “The PdL is a [political] organism that’s used to relying on its supreme commander,” Folli wrote in an editorial for Il Sole 24 Ore, adding in an interview with Maclean’s that he finds it hard to imagine the party without Berlusconi. The recent abysmal electoral showing is also likely to widen existing cracks between the PdL and its coalition partner, the Northern League, a smaller party that rallies around regionalism and anti-immigration themes. To be sure, in the immediate aftermath of defeat, the movement’s leader has pledged unwavering loyalty to Berlusconi. But the party’s lower ranks are clamoring for the party to ditch Berlusconi, after the League’s support in its key constituency of Northern Italy dropped by over 20 per cent in the latest local ballots compared to the previous election.

No major political earthquake, though, is likely to happen in the short term, says Folli. Italians are loathe to sacrifice even a few days of their summer to pick a new government, and even fall or winter snap elections are unheard of. But if the billionaire prime minister continues to look like a political dead man, spring could bring about a radical reshaping of Italian politics. The demise of Berlusconi could be the end of an entire party system, says Ignazi, not unlike what happened in the early 1990s, when a slew of corruption scandals and trials known as Mani Pulite (clean hands) wiped out the entire political class that had ruled Italy since the end of World War II.

Still, some are warning it might be too soon to pen Berlusconi’s political post mortem. It’s hard to keep track of how many times his adversaries at home and abroad have predicted his inexorable downfall only to watch him climb back up opinion polls and electoral ballots, says Cacciotto. “Berlusconi is incredibly resilient,” he adds. Not to mention the utter lack of alternatives to his leadership. The left has been in disarray for years, struggling to come up with a coalition arrangement that will bring together centrist currents with the more radical fringes. Significantly, winning left-wing candidates in both Milan and Naples belonged to minor parties, and not Italy’s major centre-left force, the Democratic Party. Voters may be reluctant to give Berlusconi the boot if they are uncertain about who is going to replace him, says Cacciotto. A new centrist grouping called the Third Pole, supported by business magnates such as Luca di Montezemolo, head of Ferrari, runs into the same problem—with Italians leery of untested political novelties, they’re more likely to opt for the devil they know.

Whether Berlusconi is truly finished or just weakened, then, Italy seems to be in for a period of political paralysis that could further damage its economy. But if the current turmoil serves to sweep to power a new, bold, reformist government when spring comes, many Italians will think it will have been well worth it.

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