A Slowly Sinking Silvio; Berlusconi-Ism Is Dead. Long Live Berlusconi. Italians Oust a Government, Only to Install Another. Guess Who?

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Pape and Jacopo Barigazzi

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi handed in his resignation last week--a year early. From afar, it looked like the end of a wild ride for the flamboyant Italian billionaire. His Forza Italia was crushed in regional elections in early April. Fractious coalition partners were nipping at his heels, and he was slumping in the polls just 12 months before he was to run again. Yet as Berlusconi prepared to dissolve his government, he appeared before Parliament and declared: "I am confident this difficult moment can be overcome." Very confident. He'd already arranged a successor: himself.

Ah, Italian politics. But beneath the dealmaking and game-playing, this cosmetic change of government--the first in four years, something of a record for Italy--may well mark the end of an era. Italian politics have been driven recently by what analysts like sociologist Giuseppe De Rita call Berlusconi-ism. It's a flamboyant form of "mediatized" leadership emphasizing charm, media reach and the politics of personality. It often involves odd settings for serious pronouncements. Just last month the prime minister, who owns all three major private TV channels in Italy and oversees the government broadcaster RAI, announced on the Italian talk show "Porta a Porta" ("Door to Door") that Italy would begin pulling out of Iraq in September. The declaration surprised allies both abroad and at home. Italians joke that "Porta a Porta" has become "Italy's third chamber" of Parliament.

The problem for Berlusconi is that his peculiar charm is wearing thin. The center-left opposition won 12 of 14 races in the latest elections, shaving seven percentage points off Forza Italia's showing in the 2000 regional elections. Analysts attribute the loss to Italy's stagnant economy, anger over the Iraq war and fears that the prime minister isn't preparing the nation for the future. The opposition didn't win the elections, most agreed. Berlusconi lost them.

What a comedown. After Berlusconi's national victory four years ago, voters saw him almost as a man of destiny, capable of engineering a much-needed national transformation. For 50 years, there was never more than a 7 percent shift between the country's political left and right from one election to the next, according to Paolo Gambescia, editor of Rome's leading daily, Il Messaggero. Berlusconi shattered that political calculus in 2001, winning 29.5 percent and spurring a dramatic electoral shift toward his broad coalition of nationalists, regionalists, rightists and centrists. …