In Italy’s showdown, the outlandish versus smug

OH GOD, it’s Florida!" Perhaps this front-page commentary from the daily Corriere della Sera, a reference to the hanging chads and disputed American vote of 2000, best caught Italy’s anxiety after election results revealed a country so perfectly divided as to appear almost perfectly ungovernable.

By Roger Cohen

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Published: Thu 13 Apr 2006, 10:31 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:33 PM

Romano Prodi, with a narrow advantage in the lower house for his motley centre-left alliance, declared victory and his readiness to govern. But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose oddball centre-right grouping was still locked in a battle for control of the upper house, or Senate, showed no sign of being ready to quit.

Accusations thundered back and forth, as they have throughout a bitterly contested campaign marked by Berlusconi’s outlandish —but often calculated —buffoonery and Prodi’s measured —but often smug —confidence that Italy was ready for a decisive change.

"Almost indecent," was the lapidary comment of Prodi’s party on what it called Berlusconi’s defiance of the will of the people. Aides to Berlusconi, who compared himself to Napoleon and Jesus Christ during the campaign, retorted that Prodi’s victorious declarations were "anti-democratic."

Ominous talk of recounts and manipulations and political coups suggested it was not so much Florida in the air as cold-war Paraguay. But, of course, a democratic Italy is anchored in the European Union and the chatter was harmless enough.

Still, behind the theatre to which Italy is seldom a stranger lay several discomfiting facts. Any new government will need the support of both houses, and it was not clear that could be secured. Relations between Berlusconi and Prodi are so bad that compromise seems unimaginable.

A languishing and increasingly uncompetitive economy good at making things like textiles and shoes that China makes much more cheaply requires concerted attention, but it now seems unlikely to get it. With the wealthy north voting for the right and the backward south for the left, the country’s historical divisions between a zone of productivity and a zone of state dependency have been exacerbated. Italy today seems split in two in just about every way a country can be: politically, geographically, economically and culturally. "This Italy is divided between two uncompromising and irreconcilable halves," commented Massimo Giannini in the daily La Repubblica.

In this, to be fair, it is scarcely alone. Italy’s knife-edge election follows an almost equally close-fought vote in Germany. America itself is split almost down the middle. It is not merely Berlusconi’s "House of Liberty" and Prodi’s "Union" —vague names embracing unstable coalitions of interest —that find themselves almost tied in a modern democracy. Labels of left and right count for little in a post-ideological world where the dictates of the market often leave little room for real political manoeuvres. What remains are battles of culture and style and personality in which each point of view is comforted by a barrage of partisan Internet communication.

In Italy, the deployment of forces has been clear for some time. On the one side, Berlusconi’s, pro-American, pro-market, anti-politically-correct, immigrant-wary, nationalist-tinged followers, united, if anything, in their loathing of what they see as a Communist-influenced left.

On the other, Prodi’s anti-American, market-moderating, globalisation-wary secular Europeanists united, if anything, in their loathing of Berlusconi’s populist style, his apparent skirting of the law in defence of his vast business interests, and his firm support for the war in Iraq.

It had seemed, until Tuesday, that Prodi’s forces held a clear upper hand. The Iraq war has festered, weakening Berlusconi’s hand. His promises of economic reform have proved largely empty, leaving Italy with an annual growth rate of just 0.7 per cent during his five years in office. No country has suffered like Italy from the adoption of the euro, which put an end to its ability to compensate for inefficiency through devaluations of the lira. By any measure, even in a country where measurements are notoriously unreliable, Italy has trailed under Berlusconi: public finances, competitiveness and employment have all suffered.

But Prodi, the former head of the European Commission whose supporters range from ecologists to unreformed Communists, proved unable to capitalise decisively on these failings. At times he seemed paralysed by the divisions within his own camp. If he becomes prime minister, as seems probable, his ability to govern now seems certain to be limited. That will leave Italy doing what it knows best but can least afford: muddling through and punching below its weight.

As for Berlusconi, his likening of himself to Christ was outrageous, but his talent for political resurrection can scarcely be questioned after a bravado performance suggesting that his pro-American stance was less unpopular than it appeared. His feel for an angry Europe troubled by immigration and tired of political double-speak has proved more acute than his many critics suggested.

America’s recent honouring of Berlusconi as a statesman worthy of addressing a joint session of Congress was far-fetched. So, too, was President George W. Bush’s recent description of him as a "strong leader." A desperate war in Iraq that has alienated several European allies evidently makes a sober American judgment of European friends difficult.

But there is no question that Berlusconi, with his stubborn but erratic flair, and his flawed brio, has demonstrated the impatience of many Italians with the pat phrases of European anti-Americanism. The country, however, has scarcely benefited from one of the longest periods of stable government in the post-war years. Consumed by his own persona, and at times by his own legal travails, Berlusconi has not delivered. How Prodi will be able to do so, if he becomes prime minister with the most slender of majorities, is unclear.

Perhaps Angela Merkel, the popular German chancellor now vacationing on the Italian island of Ischia, has a few suggestions. She, of course, emerged from a muddled election at the head of a grand coalition. But such a broad left-right alliance appears as remote here as Italian bravado and theatre are from German efficiency and precision.

Roger Cohen writes Globalist column in the International Herald Tribune

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