Well, in the Italian Senate, anyway, where he got an absolute majority. In the Chamber of Deputies he defeated a no-confidence measure, brought by his own “allies” led by House Speaker Gianfranco Fini, by 3 votes. There’s lots of maneuvering still to come, including an effort (unlikely to succeed) to broaden his coalition, but the big news–and it’s very big news–is that he’s once again demonstrated that he can’t be beaten. There’s a lot of gnashing teeth tonight, and not just in Rome, where hundreds of protesters torched the neighborhood around Piazza del Popolo, where Federico Fellini lived in the seventies. Teeth are grinding in London, where the British press, led by the Financial Times, was salivating at the happy thought of Berlusconi’s downfall. Why? I think it’s because the Brits are congenitally jealous of Italy and Italians, who, the Brits think, are too handsome, too sexy, and have altogether too much fun, and Berlusconi has more fun than anyone. Intolerable!
Berlusconi’s opponents must be furious that the prime minister’s victory was largely due to female deputies who switched sides to vote for him. One is Catia Polidori, described in the Corriere della Sera as “Umbrian and very blonde” (and they say that Berlusconi is the sexist!). The other key deputy is Maria Grazia Siliquini, a lawyer from Turin who is in her fifth term in Parliament. This will be particularly hard to swallow, both for Fini’s people and for the Left, who had convinced themselves and many others that women hate Berlusconi. Another happy thought bites the dust…
One of my favorite political analysts, Stefano Folli of il Sole 24 Ore (the Italian version of the Wall Street Journal) thinks it likely that there will be new elections announced in a month or two, and he’s usually right. But if that happens, it will be because of Berlusconi’s wishes, not those of his opponents. It’s virtually impossible to identify any national leader capable of beating him, especially at a moment when the country has to deal with some very serious economic and social problems. Including the rioters in the streets of the capital.
I have never been a big fan of Berlusconi–or, for that matter, any European leader these days–but he’s certainly distinguished himself in many areas. I think he’s the only one of the lot (with the possible exception of Sarkozy) to say that the West must support the Iranian opposition. He’s been an outspoken defender of Israeli security and legitimacy. At the time of 9/11, he remarked at a press conference that “our civilization is superior to theirs; just look at the way they treat women.” You can easily imagine the outrage from the politically correct crowd, but he was right. Good friends of mine are angry because of Berlusconi’s active friendship with Vladimir Putin, but it’s both logical and remunerative for Italy. Some might even call it good statesmanship.
There is hardly a crime of which he has not been accused, but so far without penal effect. He’s often charged with press manipulation (he created a vast media empire (Mediaset), including the first private tv network in Italian history, and one of the country’s biggest publishing houses, Mondadori). But in fact he’s done precisely the opposite. Before Berlusconi, broadcasting was a state monopoly; he introduced a bit of competition into the mix. Forgive me if I like that. If it were up to me, I’d insist that all media were private, because I have never understood people who think it’s a good idea for the state to print or broadcast “news.” In the old days, Italy’s radio and tv stations were in the hands of the political parties, and you could choose your bias. I used to ask that system’s apologists, “if the government published a newspaper called The State, would you read it?” Certainly not, they said. “So why do you approve state-run radio and tv?”
The same applies to the BBC in Britain and NPB here. And Berlusconi has shown the way forward. All in all, the man’s got a million defects, but all in all I think he’s Europe’s best leader. Maybe that’s damning with faint praise, but there you have it. Eventually Italy will produce some new political talent, but we’re not there yet. Just ask Gianfranco Fini, who is the biggest loser in Tuesday’s dramatic events.
A word about Fini is in order: to his great credit, he led the Italian Right away from its post-war neofascist convictions to become a legitimate political player in Italy’s rough-and-tumble democracy, which was an important and perhaps even historic achievement. But his own political philosophy is best described as “Italian Gaullism;” a statist faith modeled on the 5th French Republic. Not surprising, therefore, that he has played second fiddle to Berlusconi, who shows respect and affection for the Italian electorate. Fini’s effort to bring down his longtime boss was not even presented as a campaign for serious policy changes, as can be seen from the Left’s eager support for his no-confidence proposal. It was a power play, and it failed, as it deserved. Fini had voted for the Berlusconi Government, and then tried to bring it down because he wanted to be Number One. And, as Machiavelli famously remarked, if you’re going to strike at the Prince you’d better kill him, because if you fail you’re going to come to grief. Fini’s days on the national political stage are undoubtedly few.
Bottom line: Until the new generation arrives, Berlusconi’s probably in office as long as he wishes.