Il Cavaliere's Last Stand: Silvio Berlusconi Is Fighting for His Political Life as His Most Loyal Allies Desert Him. for How Much Longer Can He Hold on to Power?

By Popham, Peter | New Statesman (1996), October 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

Il Cavaliere's Last Stand: Silvio Berlusconi Is Fighting for His Political Life as His Most Loyal Allies Desert Him. for How Much Longer Can He Hold on to Power?


Popham, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


To follow Italian politics today is rather like watching the terrible last bouts of a heavyweight champ on the slide. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi turned 74 on 29 September. His plastic surgeons can keep on nipping and tucking, but they can't do anything about the expression on his face as he lambasts party or parliament--the look of a child shaken roughly from sleep and on the brink of tears or a sulk. Nor can they do anything about that voice, at once husky and adenoidal, with which he assaults his enemies near and far.

While he was merely a billionaire businessman, Berlusconi built himself a pyramid-shaped mausoleum at his country seat north of Milan, but after tasting political power for the first time he boasted he would live to be 120 and that he was as strong as an ox. Only two years ago--as we learned from an embarrassing kiss-and-tell memoir by a prostitute named Patrizia d'Addario--his relentless libido could keep him going all night. The same year, his coalition won a general election by the biggest margin in the history of the republic, with a majority of 58 in the Italian Chamber of Deputies and 21 in the Senate. Berlusconi suddenly started to behave like Mussolini: wiping off the clownish grin, declaring his determination to get things done, strutting round Naples as he inspected overflowing piles of rubbish (which he duly got rid of), flying back and forth from the earthquake-flattened city of L'Aquila three times a week, dashing around in hard hat and polo shirt, directing relief operations.

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Yet, two years on, Berlusconi seems fatigued. Less than halfway through his mandate, his coalition is crumbling. One of his two most important allies, Gianfranco Fini, who was his deputy between 2001 and 2006, has deserted. A neo-fascist whom Berlusconi brought in from the cold in 1994 and who steadily mutated into a Euro-statesman of repute, Fini had a very public shouting match with Berlusconi in April. On 5 October, after a summer of acrimonious sparring, Fini announced his plan to launch the Futuro e Liberta ("future and freedom") party.

Before that, on 29 September--"un comple-anno di merda", or "birthday of shit", as Berlusconi described it--the prime minister got through the most crucial battle of his political life so far, a debate on the five-point government programme that he has promised to implement by the end of this parliament in 2015. "He looked as if he was on Valium," one newspaper correspondent noted. He read out the programme word for word--and it took 57 minutes. Gone was the old Berlusconi elan: the jokes, the billets-doux passed across the benches to his most decorative MPs, the colourful denunciations. The motion was passed by a healthy majority of 64, but only because Fini and his team decided, for tactical reasons, to back it.

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The Fini-Berlusconi divorce--unlike Berlusconi's divorce from his wife, Veronica Lario, which is still in the hands of the lawyers--is final. Fini and the MPs loyal to him could sink Berlusconi whenever they wish. What could provoke such a destructive act on the part of his former ally? Though a solid supporter of numerous so-called ad personam laws passed by Berlusconi to extricate himself from legal scrapes in the past, Fini decided this year that enough was enough.

The Italian justice system is in a deplorable state: cases creep ever more slowly through the courts. Berlusconi's answer to this, in the "reform" promised in his five-point programme, was to reduce yet further the time frame of the statute of limitations. This would have the effect of killing off thousands of cases that are already under way--including, by a strange coincidence, the three that currently threaten him.

One is the case in which David Mills, the estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail by a Milan court for taking a bribe. The conviction was annulled on appeal thanks to the statute of limitations, but magistrates in Milan are bent on prosecuting Berlusconi for giving the bribe unless he can find a legal way to stop them.

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