The man known as Italy’s Great Seducer may have finally lost his charm.
Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s scandal-plagued prime minister, survivor of some 50 confidence motions over the years and twice thrown out of office, says he will exit from the Italian political scene now that the nation’s parliament has passed an austerity package.
That resignation could come as early as this weekend, although there has been speculation that Berlusconi could hang on until as late as February, when new elections are expected to be held.
For many Italians, not to mention European Union leaders, Berlusconi’s arrivederci can’t come soon enough. Considering his political resilience, it’s not surprising that there’s reluctance to count him out. Still, the reaction in many corners is unmistakable.
“I’m happy since he should have stepped down when his scandals broke and his decline began,” Luisa Amato, a media consultant in Rome, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
If Berlusconi does step down as expected, he will leave behind an Italy on the brink of financial collapse and a leadership post that will need work to remove the aura of corruption.
But Berlusconi, who used his wealth and charisma to remain at or near the center of Italian politics for the better part of two decades, is “only a symptom of a broader problem in an Italian society that is resistant to reform,” says Philip Giurlando, political scientist at Queens University in Kingston, Canada.
“He entered office 17 years ago promising liberal reforms and he’s implemented none of them,” Giurlando said of Berlusconi.
Whatever his original intensions, Berlusconi’s legal troubles (by his own estimate, he is the “most legally persecuted man of all time,” having endured some 2,500 court hearings), combined with the need to keep the country’s entrenched interest groups as allies, meant the old order was budging.
“He represents this sort of style over substance that has been a feature of the world economy, particularly in Europe and the United States, over the last 20 to 30 years,” says John Agnew, author of the book Berlusconi’s Italy and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It is a bit of a paradox. You have a government led by an entrepreneur who … wasn’t able at all to deliver the reforms and potential growth in the country,” says Carlo Bastasin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If you look at all the periods over the past 20 years where Berlusconi was in power, they were actually periods of fiscal laxity compared with times when technical or central-led governments were in charge,” he says.
In any case, Berlusconi would have faced the task of dislodging a gigantic public sector, powerful guilds that control the country’s service sector and an aging population prepared to do battle with anyone threatening its expensive social safety net.
“A lot of people vote not on a mature notion of the common good, but on the basis of their own personal gains and losses,” says Giurlando. “This is a problem in democracies everywhere, but in Italy, it’s particularly acute.”
According to anti-corruption organization Transparency International, many Italians feel the country’s political parties are “extremely corrupt.” Italy’s economy minister, Giulio Tremonti, has acknowledged widespread tax evasion.
Perhaps the biggest reason that Berlusconi has been reluctant to stand down is his fear of prosecution once he leaves office.
“He spends an enormous amount of time and energy … trying to craft laws that don’t apply generally to the population, but just to him,” Agnew says. “This is part of Italy’s problem and it’s a big part of his own credibility problem. He isn’t concerned with the business of the country, but with his own business.”
With focus in the Europe Union shifting briefly away from Greece last month and onto Italy and its growing public debt –- now 120 percent or more of gross domestic product — Berlusconi promised to double-down on austerity measures to clean up the mess.
But by then, disdain for Berlusconi among his fellow EU leaders was palpable. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, when asked at a joint news conference last month whether they thought Berlusconi had gotten the message on reforms, seemed unable to keep their game faces. After a pregnant pause, Sarkozy glanced over at Merkel, broke into a knowing grin that was returned by the chancellor.
Meanwhile, Italy’s financial troubles get worse. Earlier this week, bond rates for Italy –- which go up along with the perceptions of risk on sovereign debt — spiked past 7 percent. That is a level that has proven unsustainable for other nations, such as Greece.
“I don’t envy the government or the individual that comes in,” says Scheherazade Rehman, a professor at George Washington University.
Rehman and other observers, just as average Italians, are quick to attach a caveat to Berlusconi’s promise to step down: Don’t believe it until you see it.
“He has survived situations that I think no other politician would have survived,” she says. “But I think everyone is feeling that he really has run out of time this time.”
UCLA’s Agnew agrees.
“What’s different this time around is that there’s a sense of doom, almost,” he says. “Getting rid of him will help enormously in getting rid of the problem.”