Italy’s Natural Selection

By Gianni Riotta, the deputy editor of the newspaper Corriere della Sera and author of the novel “The Lights of Alborada.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13/04/06):

THE Cat has swallowed the Caiman, but now will have a hard time digesting it. This would be an absurd situation in nature, but there is nothing natural in the jungle of Italian politics.

The Cat in question is Romano Prodi, whose center-left coalition won this week’s national elections, and the Caiman is Silvio Berlusconi, billionaire prime minister and founder of the populist party Forza Italia. Mr. Berlusconi adopted his pejorative nickname — a caiman is a relative of the crocodile — from the title of the leftist director Nanni Moretti’s new film, a satirical rebuke of the prime minister’s politics. Recently I asked Mr. Prodi what animal he would have to be in order to beat the Caiman, and he answered with quiet assurance: “I want to be a cat. I like to purr but I can also scratch.”

To understand the importance of this vote for the Italian republic, one must look back 15 years. The end of the cold war also ended the lengthy reign of the Christian Democratic Party. This opened the door for Mr. Berlusconi — the tycoon whose empire, Mediaset, encompasses TV networks, newspapers, real estate and the soccer team A.C. Milan — and Forza Italia, which won national elections in 1994 and 2001.

Since then, the Italian political show has centered on him, even for the five years he was out of power. He is loved by his base and the many fawning columnists on his payroll. But the other half of Italy hates him with gusto: “I pray every night, ‘Dear Lord, I was born under Mussolini, please do not let me die under Berlusconi,’ ” says my father, a moderate Catholic.

So now what? Mr. Prodi will have two years to make the urgent economic reforms the country badly needs to compete in the global economy. His majority is slim, and he owes it to Italians being allowed to vote from abroad from the first time in history. The radical left, led by Fausto Bertinotti and composed mostly of former Communists, will resist progress.

Still, Mr. Prodi may count on a few moderate parliamentarians ready to help him quicken the somnolent rhythm of the Italian markets. Roman politics, with its tradition of the Borgias, can absorb a lot of his energy.

For his part, Mr. Berlusconi, a man who proudly boasts of his triumphs in business, sports, romance and politics and even as a crooner, will not accept defeat quietly. He is already asking for a recount. Meanwhile, his former center-right coalition allies — Gianfranco Fini, of the formerly fascist National Alliance, and Pier Ferdinando Casini, of the former Christian Democrats — will undoubtedly plot against him, challenging Forza Italia for leadership of the opposition. Mr. Berlusconi has treated these men poorly, often relegating their speeches to the wee hours on his three national TV networks.

The first showdown between the Cat and the Caiman will be played out over a new conflict-of-interest law putting limits on politicians’ involvement with their businesses. The issue has plagued Italy for 12 years, as Mr. Berlusconi has used his powers in the free market to appoint editors, managers and soccer coaches all over the country. If Mr. Berlusconi has to choose between politics and his media empire, he will likely resist to the bitter end before eventually surrendering and obliging with the law. After all, Forza Italia is still Italy’s top party — and the areas it still represents in Parliament make up 85 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

In a larger sense, this election was most significant for shattering several myths. First, it put an end to the belief in the omnipotence of television, of Mr. Berlusconi’s so-called videocracy. When challenged by a serious contender, no leader can win by relying on only a few talking heads comfortably nestled in television studios.

Second was the long-held belief, here and abroad, of Italy as a mosaic of riotous parties. In the end, the two big coalitions attracted the overwhelming majority of voters — 99 percent in the lower house — leaving behind only a few crumbs for marginalized groups.

The last myth — heard in the cries of leftist Italians here and abroad — was that Mr. Berlusconi was becoming a dictator. While his populism stretched the fabric of Italian politics to the limits, our democracy was never jeopardized. Forza Italia won the elections in 2001 largely because of the left’s disgraceful performance: three prime ministers discarded in the five years it held power turned public opinion to disgust. Italian democracy remains as vibrant today as a good red wine from Tuscany.

Prodi the Cat has three main challenges ahead: to convince the labor unions that reforms are inevitable (and avoiding the kind of uprisings France faces); to create a more stable base for his new alliance by bringing in the Catholic and reformist left; and to unify a bitterly divided country where half the population is still resentful of the left’s erratic past.

As for the Caiman, don’t cry crocodile tears for Silvio Berlusconi yet. His energy, ambition and narcissism have not waned, and we are sure to hear from him again. But for now, however, the Cat is purring at ease.