Rumors of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s imminent resignation have spurred speculation in international circles about the future of the Italian government. Meanwhile, anxiety about Italy has spread from European capitals to Washington. These concerns are justified because as the eurozone’s third largest economy and a long-standing member of European and transatlantic institutions, Italy is critical to larger international balances.
Three basic political facts stand out even in these fluid days. The first is that even if Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were able to once again survive an announced vote of confidence this week, his future would look no less bleak. It is hard not to conclude that Berlusconi’s trajectory has been downward for years, not just months. Of the three main forces that had accompanied him since his surprise victory in 1994, only one — the regionalist Northern League — is still with him, although it is increasingly divided, as many have come to see Berlusconi as a political liability. A large number of Christian Democrats that had chosen to support Berlusconi turned their backs on him years ago and have since then worked to build a ”third pole.” The leader of Italian post-fascists, Gianfranco Fini, who had greatly benefited from Berlusconi’s endorsement in the 1990s, has also become one of his staunchest opponents. The loss of coalition partners, moreover, has been accompanied in recent months by the rise of internal dissent within his own party. This is a new development of great significance as it indicates that even those who owe Berlusconi directly do not see their personal or political future served by Berlusconi’s survival. Even more critically, the loss of allies has been matched by the de-alignment of segments of Italian society, including important pieces such as Italy’s largest association of businessmen.
The second fact, which partly offsets the first, is that even if Berlusconi were forced out this week, the culture, style, and priorities that he has brought to government during the past 15 years may not go with him. Understanding the circumstances of Berlusconi’s demise is important in order to understand his legacy. If his fall comes from the pressure of scandals as opposed to widespread criticism for his policies and the crisis extending well beyond Italy, for which the Berlusconi governments bear only limited responsibility, then elements of what has come to be known as “Berlusconism” may well survive the man. Berlusconi has not created what critics have often stigmatized as Italy’s “anomaly.” The weakening of democratic procedures and the deeper impoverishment of Italy’s democratic culture in the past years was already in the making — Berlusconi has just accelerated its course. Berlusconi is a man of uncommon qualities and great achievements, but his greatness has never fully rested on what he is or what he accomplished. Rather it has rested with the weakness of what is around it and the emptiness of what is missing. Italy has historically had weak institutions, internal polarization, a culture that seldom rewards merit, structural economic weaknesses and regional imbalances, and a high degree of public tolerance for the misdeeds and corruption of the powerful. The question of why these factors have been reinforced since the end of the Cold War, when one could have instead expected further democratic consolidation and faster political development in the context of a less ideologically divided political spectrum and further socialization of EU-wide norms, deserves serious scrutiny. Berlusconi has been a particularly prominent manifestation of this malaise. The idea that Italy’s structural problems will be solved by his demise alone is wishful, delusional, and self-absolutory thinking.
The third fact in these convulsive days is that a large majority in the Italian parliament, and a strong constituency in the country, is fully aware of the dramatic moment Italy is living in and understands the provisions that have to be implemented without delay. To the extent that Italy’s economic problems can still have a political solution — a real question given the behavior of the international markets — a way out will be found, whether through a government of national unity, an enlarged coalition with some of the current opposition parties, or early elections preceded by exceptional measures to keep the economy safe until a new government is formed. After all, Berlusconi himself has already accepted monitoring from the IMF to ensure that tangible outcomes, not just promises, will come out from deliberations of Italian leaders and parties. The stewardship of an Italian head of state, Giorgio Napolitano, that is widely respected internally and internationally is reinforced by the recent appointment of Mario Draghi, an internationally-minded technocrat with vast experience, as head of the European Central Bank. If these “anchors” were not enough, the main center-left parties have sent a clear message that their intransigent opposition to Berlusconi does not spare them from doing all that is needed to save the Italian economy and ensuring Italy’s continuing participation in the European project — a goal that is widely shared by Italian public opinion at large.
Even if and when the current emergency is overcome, the question of whether this will be enough to spur a larger Italian renaissance will loom large. Or will a dangerous muddling through again occur until perhaps a new resourceful outsider with insatiable personal ambition will promise the country the future that its citizens were never strong enough to build by themselves ?