Many Italians, in the past months, have dreamed about Silvio Berlusconi’s fall. They would pop open bottles of bubbly, they imagined; and they would hug and cheer and celebrate with friends. Some envisaged their teenage children dancing in the piazzas, like partisan Olmo’s daughter in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, the classic film about fascism and resistance.
Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Last Tuesday, when Berlusconi lost his parliamentary majority, nobody ventured on to the streets of Rome. In fact, the capital was hit by a rainstorm that in some parts of Italy turned into a flood, killing people and causing serious damage. This, together with an attack from the markets on Italian Treasury bonds, left us feeling as if we were living through a biblical plague (though we did manage a little celebration yesterday).
Our teenage children were sceptical about the outcome – they had got used to things being a certain way. It’s easy to blame Berlusconi – polarising the country, making a fool of himself on the international scene – but we also have to recognise that, in part, he simply legitimised the worst elements of our national character. Like the widespread sympathy for le simpatiche canaglie, the “lovable rogues” who break every rule, think ethics is for wimps, and generally get away with murder (or, at least, paying underage girls for sex). The typical Italian rogue has many qualities: great problem-solving abilities, flexibility and creativity. But, like Berlusconi, he can have a fatal flaw: he’s often unable to work for the public interest or the common good; instead promoting his own interest, or his family’s – or families in Berlusconi’s case.
In the past months, even many staunch supporters were exasperated by his behaviour, by the inaction of his cabinet, by the arrogance of our political class. In the past week, as soon as it became clear that Berlusconi was finally finito, everybody was in a hurry to forget him, his corrupted allies, his bimbos promoted to government posts. Which leaves us where exactly? Relieved, I suppose, but fantastically worried about the economy.
The average Italian mood is well described by a popular song, Buonanotte all’Italia (“Goodnight, Italy”), by the singer Luciano Ligabue. Ligabue sings about our “tomorrow that’s coming, but seems like we’re in limbo”, while “yesterday’s scars don’t go away”. He depicts a country “with all this beauty but no GPS navigator”. Actually, Italy appears to have a soon-to-be-appointed navigator: the respected economist Mario Monti. The 68-year-old Monti embodies an Italian type of public servant that in recent years has been ignored or ridiculed: quiet, monogamous, scholarly, stubbornly polite, frugal and slim. But even Monti is becoming a polarising figure.
Many centre-left Italians are battling with their own Monti dilemma: by instinct, they like this honest professor with a distinguished record as EU competition commissioner. But Italy is a country of conspiracy theorists, and many of them are suspicious of his links to the Bilderberg Group, the influential but secretive conference of international business and political leaders. Some suggest that Monti might turn out to be a prime minister imposed by Germany and the banks.
Many centre-right Italians express similar doubts. Some dislike his public persona: Monti is the anthropological opposite of the Berlusconiani, the openly womanising, joke-telling, tax-evading entrepreneurs who loved Silvio and felt entitled to behave like him. Others, mostly right-wingers and Lega Nord supporters, don’t trust Monti, fearing more taxes and a loss of national sovereignty.
The political scene is in a similar mess. The Popolo della Libertà, Berlusconi’s party, is torn apart. The main opposition party, the Partito Democratico, is endorsing Monti; but many Democrats worry about a loss of consensus due to Monti’s expected plans of budget-cutting measures, pension reform and lay-offs of state employees. Italia dei Valori, the populist movement led by Antonio Di Pietro, is against a Monti cabinet, but many of his supporters show faith in Monti. Sinistra e Libertà, the radical left party that is not in parliament but is now credited with about 8% of national support, is officially against Monti. But its charismatic leader, Puglia governor Nichi Vendola, speaks highly of the professor. And so it goes on, in these days of confusion.
When foreign friends ask Italians to explain our situation to them, we are, once more, ill at ease. The Italian “walk of shame” of the Berlusconi era now seems over. But we’re waking up in a country that is not what we were encouraged to believe it was for many years. For a long time, the three state-run television networks and the three Berlusconi-owned networks depicted a portrait of a happy Italy. This was a place where banks were solid, where the economy had been barely touched by recession, where the girls were beautiful and could make a career out of their graces and where Italian families were, on average, well-off.
Now it is sinking in that our country of homeowners and state bond-holders is impoverished. Property prices are falling, people are panicking about the collapsing value of their Treasury bonds, and everybody talks constantly about the possibility of a default. Furthermore, endless judicial inquiries reveal ties between politicians, bankers, bribed public contractors, organised crime and money launderers. The consequences are visible in the streets of our capital city: the asphalt is damaged, the public transportation is lousy, and many restaurants are now owned by businessmen tied to the Neapolitan Camorra or the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta.
“Our illegal economy is worth ¤350bn per year,” says Nunzia Penelope, a journalist whose new book, Soldi Rubati (Stolen Money), is becoming required reading for worried Italians. “Tax evasion costs us ¤120bn per year, public corruption ¤60bn. If we were able to defeat the dark forces of illegality, in 10 years our public debt would be reduced to zero.”
Our debt is now about 120% of our annual economic output. But our economy is still the eighth largest in the world, the fourth largest in Europe, and our manufacturing sector is still strong. My compatriots are demoralised, though. In the past year, many took to the streets to demonstrate against the government. In local elections in May, almost everywhere they elected new mayors from opposition parties.
However, most citizens have lost faith in our politicians. The only political figure still trusted is president Giorgio Napolitano, who in 2011 succeeded in revamping our national pride during the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Italy’s reunification. In March, for the first time in our history – apart from during football matches, that is – many of us hung Italian flags from our windows. We are now seeking new reasons to be proud of our country. But this time we can’t count on the stellone, on Italy’s lucky star. It’s up to us, and it’s going to be harder than ever.
Maria Laura Rodotà, a columnist with Corriere della Sera.