Breaking Point? Silvio Berlusconi Keeps His Government Together, but He Has Worn out His Welcome

Newsweek International, July 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Breaking Point? Silvio Berlusconi Keeps His Government Together, but He Has Worn out His Welcome


Byline: Stryker McGuire (With Liat Radcliffe in London and Edward Pentin in Rome)

It was another brass-knuckles day for Silvio Berlusconi. His coalition was on the verge of collapse. He was deep in argument with one of his balky political partners, Marco Follini, leader of the small Democratic Union of the Center (UDC) party. "Without me, you won't be here either," the Italian P.M. reportedly told him--and he didn't stop there. Follini should count himself lucky that the three TV channels Berlusconi owns hadn't been giving him any trouble. Not yet, anyway. "Carry on like this," the boss declared, "and you'll see."

Carry on like this, and you'll see. Are Italians beginning to feel the same way about their billionaire bull-in-a-china-shop leader? Last week's confrontation--over whom to name as Finance minister, a job to which Berlusconi had conveniently assigned himself temporarily--was a sign that his coalition partners, smelling blood, could push the government to its breaking point. The Italian economy, which 20 years ago was bigger than Britain's, is today one of Western Europe's shakiest. The country's pension crisis is a ticking time bomb. Popular opposition to the war in Iraq continues to dog Berlusconi, who backed U.S. President George W. Bush unreservedly. Last year, in a series of trademark gaffes, he transformed Italy's turn at the six-month rotating European Union presidency from a chance to shine into a debacle. Even Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, is giving him grief. Says Maria Latella, who wrote Lario's just-published and less-than-flattering authorized biography of her husband: "You only have to see his favorite villa, which is like Disneyland, to realize this is not a man ready to confront reality."

If only it were so simple. Berlusconi's staunchest critics would love to see the back of him, especially those in the media and business elites over whom he has ridden roughshod for years. Yet make no mistake: Il Cavaliere still cuts a commanding figure in Italy. Though slumping in the polls, he retains extraordinary personal appeal (magnified by a media industry largely under his control) as a swashbuckling capitalist who talks straight. What's more, though torn by infighting, his center-right coalition faces no credible opposition. "He is losing his touch," says Andrea Romano of Italianieuropei, a center-left think tank. "[But] we are weak."

These days, that may be Berlusconi's best hope for survival. "This government will progressively fade away, but with no trauma," predicts Massimo Franco, a columnist for Corriere della Sera. Berlusconi may tough it out until his electoral mandate expires in 2006, thanks largely to his control over Italy's media--as he so pointedly noted to Follini. Small wonder that the newspaper La Repubblica likens the country to a "banana democracy" in the hands of a media dictator. Berlusconi's own media company Mediaset and the state broadcaster RAI, which the prime minister controls, together monopolize 90 percent of the total audience. He owns the country's biggest ad agency, the biggest publishing house, the biggest film-distribution business, two national newspapers, 50 magazines and several Internet service providers. A cartoonist once caricatured Berlusconi as saying: "I was democratically elected. But I deserve much, much better."

The question is whether Italians deserve better. Berlusconi's government is the country's 59th since World War II and, after just three years, the longest-serving. "Italy may not deserve Berlusconi, but Berlusconi is a byproduct of what Italy has done for a long time," says a senior public figure who's tangled with Berlusconi--which is to mix business and politics in often unsavory ways. …

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