Berlusconi Bound for Failure

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For a man so concerned with appearing eternally young, it is perhaps a little unfortunate that Silvio Berlusconi seems to have dominated Italian politics for an eternity.

When Berlusconi first came to power in 1994, Francois Mitterand was in charge in Paris, John Major in London, Helmut Kohl in Bonn (yes, Bonn), Bill Clinton in Washington and Paul Keating in Canberra. Since then, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, George W. Bush, and John Howard have all come and gone. Meanwhile, in the eternal city, the 76-year-old Berlusconi is preparing to fight his sixth general election.

Most comment pieces in the international press are dedicated to Berlusconi's failings. Let's redress that by acknowledging his successes. First, his record as a vote-getter: he has led centre-right coalitions to resounding victories in three elections (1994, 2001 and 2008) and lost two either due to an ally defecting (1996) or by a handful of votes (2006). Apart from 1996, he has been able to keep together parties with disparate interests in coalitions that are highly competitive and recognise just one overall leader: him. That is no mean achievement in the factional world of Italian politics.

Second, he has founded the two single most successful Italian political parties of the past two decades, first Forza Italia and then the Popolo della Liberta (People of Liberty). These have been "personal parties", constructed as expressions of, and vehicles for, the leader.

In interviews I conducted with representatives and ordinary members of his party, more than half either thought the PDL would no longer exist once Berlusconi left politics or else expressed considerable doubt. "No Silvio, no party" was the message. This ownership of the party has given him iron control over his own ranks and removed any possibility of a serious internal challenge. No Margaret Thatcher- or Kevin Rudd-style ending for him.

Third, Berlusconi has not only seen off a whole procession of centre-left opponents, young and old, but also years of international derision. Not to mention a range of accusations and trials concerning his private life and business dealings. Academics tend not to talk about it since we cannot measure it, but a key quality for politicians is stamina. Berlusconi has it in abundance. He's a fighter and never gives up. If any of his often weak-willed adversaries had been similar, we would probably not still be talking about him.

And yet we are. Despite all his evident failures. Despite the man who promised "to save Italy" again and again so clearly failing to do so. The economic booms promised have never materialised. As The Economist showed in 2011, Italy's average growth was just 0.25 per cent a year between 2000 and 2010. It was the third-worst performer in the world over the period.

While this is the stand-out statistic, no other indicators suggest that the assessment of Berlusconi's government on the economic front can be anything other than highly negative. As for Italy's image internationally, Berlusconi's greatest achievement may have been that of making so many editorial writers and analysts of different political persuasions agree on something.

So what now? At the end of November, in this newspaper, I wrote that "Berlusconi seems undecided whether he hates losing more than he hates not being the centre of attention". Shortly afterwards, he announced he would stand again, notwithstanding his age, the PDL's low poll ratings (between 15 per cent and 17 per cent), and the chorus of opposition from Europe's newsrooms, markets and politicians. Again, it's a question of stamina. Of refusing to accept defeat.

This may be one fight too many, though. For while the determination and the brawler's instincts are still there, his ability to construct winning coalitions appears to have deserted him. The PDL's main ally of the past decade, the regionalist Northern League, is refusing to commit to an alliance if he is the prime ministerial candidate.

Meanwhile, his former allies in the centre have weighed in firmly behind Mario Monti, the technocrat turned politician. If things stay the same, Berlusconi has no hope of winning the general election on February 24-25. The best he can aim for is holding the balance of power in Italy's Senate (thanks to a bizarre electoral law, the Centre Left may win a majority in the lower house and not in the upper).

But even that looks unlikely now that Monti has entered the race and will attract at least some of those who otherwise would have held their noses and voted, again, for Berlusconi.

Given his capacity for changing his mind, I'll believe Berlusconi is definitely standing on January 13, when the names of the prime ministerial candidates have to be formally presented. In recent weeks, he seems to be convinced that he can surge back in the polls by appearing on television every day (often in soft interviews on his own channels), accusing his domestic rivals yet again of being communists in social-democratic clothing and dismissing international criticism as designed to serve German interests. It won't work.

The problem for Berlusconi is there is no wise old trainer in his corner to put an arm round his shoulder and tell him the game is up. While we cannot rule out he'll come to this conclusion himself, it seems more probable he will go down fighting. And that like most successful political careers, his, too, will end in failure.

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