THE PARTY'S OVER
Silvio Berlusconi, three-time Italian PM and one of the world's most charismatic and controversial politicians, is finally being forced out after dominating Italy's politics for 17 years, write John Hooper and Nick Squires.
Silvio Berlusconi, three-time Italian PM and one of the world's most charismatic and controversial politicians, is finally being forced out after dominating Italy's politics for 17 years, write John Hooper and Nick Squires. FOR Silvio Berlusconi, this week's events must have had a grim air of deja vu. After months of standing by the Prime Minister, his key ally, Umberto Bossi, the mercurial leader of the devolutionist Northern League, doomed their right-wing coalition with a single, characteristically blunt sentence. Approached by reporters outside Parliament in Rome shortly before lunch on a grey, rainy Tuesday, Bossi appeared at first to have nothing new to say. The 70-year-old was asked about the long-awaited vote on the public accounts expected in the afternoon.Knowing the opposition had decided in the national interest not to vote against the government, Bossi replied: "Today, nothing will happen." But then he immediately contradicted himself. "We asked the Prime Minister to step aside," he said before going on to name as his choice of successor the secretary of Berlusconi's party, Angelino Alfano.It was the same 17 long years ago on another winter day, when the league leader pulled the rug from under the TV magnate's first, tumultuous and short-lived government. But whereas in 1994 Bossi was the billionaire politician's executioner, switching his votes against the government in Parliament, this time he and his followers stood by the coalition to the end and let others plunge in the knife.Members of Berlusconi's own party, People of Freedom, have been slipping away from him for weeks, and when the vote on the public finances was held in mid-afternoon, as a fierce downpour lashed the capital, the exact number became clear.On October 14, when Italy's legendarily resilient Prime Minister survived the latest in a string of confidence votes, he mustered 316 of the 630 votes in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies - a bare, one-seat majority. In Tuesday's vote on the 2010 accounts a routine verification of the budget he obtained only 308. But 321 lawmakers did not vote a clear sign that "Mr Berlusconi no longer has a majority", said Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party.A photographer from the Ansa news agency managed to get a shot of the sheet of paper Berlusconi was writing on as the result became known. He had noted his tally of votes, and next to it, in brackets, "eight traitors".Underneath were his options. One of them was cryptic: "A solution." But another said: "I take note [offer my resignation]."For weeks he had remained defiant, brushing aside successive desertions by deputies and senators and turning a deaf ear to the rumbles of discontent among those who remained loyal. As recently as Monday, he had quashed reports of his imminent resignation, describing them on Facebook as without foundation.But overnight, things changed significantly. Shortly after 1.30am, a meeting ended between Berlusconi and leading figures in his party, and sources close to the Prime Minister admitted for the first time that he would assess his future on the basis of Tuesday's ballot."I'm not leaving," read the headline in Il Giornale, the Milan-based daily owned by Berlusconi's family. But even as the first copies were reaching the news-stands, the message looked incongruous.During the morning Berlusconi went through the motions, meeting two noted waverers at his home in the capital. But as they were conferring, five more People of Freedom lawmakers announced they would not take part in the vote on public financing, lining up with the boycott called by the Prime Minister's adversaries.Meanwhile, the pressure on Berlusconi was being stepped up in the financial markets. The yield on Italy's 10-year benchmark bonds rose to 6.74 per cent before dropping back. That took the interest rate on Italy's debt to within sight of the 7 per cent mark, seen as the point of no return in the debt crisis. Portugal, Greece and Ireland were all forced to seek a bailout after the yield on their sovereign bonds reached that level.The newly appointed head of the Bank of Italy, Ignazio Visco, maintains that Italy could bear rates as high as 8 per cent, but the money required to service the debt would negate whatever progress the government could make in forcing through austerity measures initiating a downward spiral of debt misery.Berlusconi had been calling on his coalition to stick together to pass the series of austerity measures that will placate the financial markets that have targeted Italy's financial vulnerabilities, just as they have done in Greece.But critics said Berlusconi's lack of credibility was among the chief reasons for the financial attacks on Italy. And after months of parliamentary deadlock, he has shown that he does not have the political backing to push through the measures required of Italy to remedy its financial ills.Last northern summer, Italy pushed through two sets of austerity measures that financial markets nonetheless deemed insufficient to bolster the country's economy and make a dent in its public debt of 1.9 trillion euros ($A2.5 trillion). Italy has the highest public debt in the euro zone after Greece and structural problems that lead to low growth.So, in the end, it was not the "bunga bunga" parties or the whiff of corruption that brought down Berlusconi, but the financial mess that Italy finds itself in, for which the Prime Minister must shoulder a large part of the blame.While he had ridden out sex scandals and corruption accusations that would have brought any other democratically elected leader to his knees, and despite enjoying a convincing parliamentary majority during much of his political career, he failed to enact the sort of structural reforms that Italy so desperately needs.Instead, Berlusconi has tap-danced around all these issues, offering timorous proposals amid scepticism that even those would be implemented. The fact that he had to consent at the G20 summit to the International Monetary Fund checking the progress of his proposed reforms was seen as particularly humiliating when Italy is meant to be celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification and liberation from centuries of foreign domination.Italy shares all of Greece's problems, and then some a vigorous black economy, corruption, a dysfunctional judicial system, a pampered, self-serving political elite, a bloated bureaucracy and a lack of meritocracy. Tax evasion and income under-declaration is widespread in Italy, with the national statistics agency Istat estimating that the black economy amounts to at least 16 per cent of GDP.Like its Mediterranean cousin, Italy also has a long history of political extremism, and anti-austerity protests on the streets of Rome have already been hijacked by gangs of youths wearing motorcycle helmets and throwing cobblestones, as they have in Athens and Thessaloniki. More violence is expected if or when Italy's austerity package begins to bite.WITH his hair implants, built-up heels and permanent sun tan, Berlusconi became a gift for cartoonists and satirists. He earned global notoriety for his penchant for glamorous young starlets and showgirls, who were photographed lounging in the sun and taking topless showers at his villa on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda.His gaffes and schoolboy pranks earned him the ire of global leaders, including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and President Barack Obama, whom Berlusconi infamously called "sun-tanned".He was inevitably portrayed as a dissolute emperor surrounded by dancing girls and fawning lackeys, a modern-day Nero who fiddled while all around him Italy burned. Or as one Italian commentator put it at the height of the sex scandals, "a cross between Hugh Hefner and the Emperor Tiberius".For much of his time in office he was mired in a web of scandal and corruption allegations, with charges ranging from tax fraud, bribery and false accounting to paying for sex with a 17-year-old nightclub dancer. And yet he still managed to get elected as prime minister three times.Born and raised in Milan, he worked as a nightclub singer on cruise ships before building a multibillion-dollar empire based on construction, publishing and television channels, amid rumours all unproved that his career was given a kickstart by the Mafia.Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in the 1990s after the Christian Democrats imploded in a corruption scandal.Italians were dazzled by his slick salesman's patter, his portrayal of himself as an outsider untainted by cronyism and his promises to initiate a Thatcher-esque revolution of economic reform.He created a party from scratch and demonstrated his knack for connecting with ordinary Italians by calling it Forza Italia - Go Italy - which echoed a chant sung by fans of the national football team.He won his first election in 1994 but his government lasted just a few months until it was brought down by Umberto Bossi. He bounced back in 2001, running an aggressive and lavishly funded media campaign.Incredibly, for a country where governments come and go with alarming frequency, he managed to stay in office until 2006, the longest prime ministerial term since the end of the Second World War.He was replaced by a lacklustre and uninspiring centre-left government, which he managed to oust in 2008.Things began to go wrong during his latest stint as prime minister when Veronica Lario, his wife of 20 years, announced that she wanted a divorce. She accused him of "consorting with minors" after he dropped into the 18th birthday party of underwear model Noemi Letizia, who said she called him "Papi" or Daddy.He was also the victim of a bizarre attack in which he suffered facial injuries after being hit with a model cathedral. Then came allegations from an escort, Patrizia D'Addario, that she had slept with Berlusconi in a double bed given to him by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.Dozens of other women came forward to say they too had been paid to attend "bunga bunga" sex parties. A 17-year-old exotic dancer called Karima El Mahroug said she had attended parties at which women performed stripteases.Prosecutors charged Berlusconi with paying for sex with an under-age prostitute and abuse of office. He is currently on trial and could face more than a decade in jail if the allegations are proved. He is also facing two corruption trials.Reports of Berlusconi's political death have been exaggerated many times, and he could stand again if and when elections are called.But this time it feels different. Italians have had enough of his broken promises equally, they know that removing him from power will not solve the nation's problems overnight. The tough times are only just beginning. Ciao Silvio, arrivederci Berlusconi1994March: Billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi bursts onto the political scene, winning elections with his Forza Italia (Go Italy) party after corruption scandals badly damage Italy's political elites.December: Northern League party leader Umberto Bossi, one of Berlusconi's few close allies at the end, pulls out of the coalition following rows with the Prime Minister and forces Berlusconi to resign.2001May: Berlusconi bounces back with an election win after a US-style campaign in which he signs a "Contract with Italians" live on television. He goes on to serve the longest stint as prime minister in postwar Italian history.2003July: Berlusconi causes international shockwaves after comments in the European Parliament in which he mockingly invites a German MP who criticised him to play a concentration camp guard in a new Italian film.2006April: Berlusconi is narrowly defeated by a centre-left coalition called The Union that he nicknames "The Soviet Union". Former European Commission president Romano Prodi becomes Italy's new prime minister.2007January: Berlusconi's wife, Veronica, demands a public apology after he flirts with one of his deputies, telling her: "I'd go anywhere with you, even to a desert island. If I weren't already married, I would marry you straight away."2008April: Berlusconi wins his third election with his new People of Freedom party, after the sudden collapse of Prodi's government amid stagnation in the Italian economy and a garbage crisis in Naples.2009May: Berlusconi's wife says she can no longer be with a man she calls "a dragon" who "cavorts with minors" after scandalous allegations about the Prime Minister's involvement with a young Neapolitan model who calls him "Daddy".2010November: Parliamentary Speaker Gianfranco Fini breaks up his long-term alliance with Berlusconi after a series of angry disputes, pulling his four ministers out of the government and triggering a December 14 confidence vote.December: Berlusconi scrapes through a crucial confidence vote in the lower house that could have brought down his government, but opponents say he will still fall because of his tiny three-seat majority.2011April: A trial opens in Milan against Berlusconi - his third ongoing trial - on charges of paying for sex with a then 17-year-old girl and then abusing the powers of his office in order to hide the alleged crime.June: Berlusconi suffers a trouncing in referendums that wipe out his plans to resume nuclear power in Italy, cancel proposed privatisation of water utilities and dismiss a law designed to keep him out of court.August: A run on stocks and a spike in borrowing rates force Berlusconi to speed up and expand austerity measures to reach a balanced budget by 2013 as the European Central Bank intervenes to prop up bond markets.September: Standard & Poor's becomes the first of the big three ratings agencies to downgrade Italian debt, even after Parliament passes Italy's second austerity package in three months to slash costs.November: Three deputies quit Berlusconi's ruling People of Freedom party and about 20 others voice dissent in an unprecedented act of defiance, leaving the coalition without a working majority in Parliament. Italian President later confirms Berlusconi will resign once austerity budget is passed through Parliament later in the month.