The convulsions that seized Italy in recent days have created new hopes that the country can be reborn, the European Union reassured and the markets stabilized. The respected economist and former European Union commissioner Mario Monti — effectively placed in charge of the country by the Italian president, and, even more, by Western political and financial powers — is trusted to have the skills and balance to deal with Italy’s economic crisis and enormous public debt.
Many believe that this is the end of the anomaly of the Berlusconi era.
They are wrong. Silvio Berlusconi, the self-proclaimed “best prime minister ever,” turned Italy into an abnormal country by aggravating the existing flaws of its relatively young democracy. He denied that Italy was experiencing a crisis or decline until he finally lost his parliamentary majority and was forced to step down.
But is the premier survivor in European politics really stepping down? It is unrealistic to think so. Berlusconi’s major concerns are the ongoing trials and police investigations. He must also defend his financial empire and prevent the fragmentation of his own party. Moreover, a politician who once compared himself to Napoleon can hardly accept words like “defeat” or a luxury retirement in his villa in Arcore.
In his last video message, on Sunday, Berlusconi proclaimed he would not “surrender” but would “double his efforts.” He argued that his government had done its best to shield Italy from a world crisis, and that it had achieved many of its goals. He spoke of the day in 1994 when he announced his entry into politics as a day that “changed Italy’s history.”
In some ways, he is right: he had a tremendous impact on Western politics. Now he is playing at being the wise statesman caring for the future of his country. His resignation, he said, was “a generous gesture.”
In fact, he did not want the technocrat Monti to be appointed, and has been (unsuccessfully) pushing to secure at least some key cabinet posts for his party — especially the Ministry of Justice. His preference was for a puppet government led by his close ally Angelino Alfano, and when that failed, his allies tried to convince the Catholic and centrist opposition parties to back Lamberto Dini, a center-right member of Parliament and an economist.
Monti’s leadership will, in fact, be risky for Berlusconi, but he will try to make the most out of it. Monti has the backing of his country’s centrist and center-left political forces. If he fails, Berlusconi will attempt to convince voters that he is still the only possible savior. On the other hand, if the new cabinet is successful, Berlusconi’s massive propaganda machine will proclaim that he prepared the ground for Monti’s success.
In sum, the next two or three months will be crucial in Italian — and European — politics. Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s ultimate goal would be to win the next elections, or to back a puppet rightist coalition, and become the next president of the republic. The political game in Italy is not finished.
By Andrea Mammone, assistant professor of modern history at Kingston University London.