The Berlusconi Show

Traditionally on losing an election, a politician calls to congratulate the winner and urges voters to put their differences aside and come together for the good of the country. But Silvio Berlusconi is anything but a traditional politician. Instead, after his narrow defeat by the center-left candidate, Romano Prodi, Berlusconi made charges of fraud (even though his own government had overseen the voting), demanded a recount (which quickly confirmed the original result), and demanded that he be included in any new government in order to avoid ‘civil war.’

Prodi will probably have enough seats to put together a parliamentary majority. But a weak government, presiding over a sharply divided country, will likely make it possible for Berlusconi to block legislation. Or Prodi’s government could be short-lived, and there could be new elections in the not-too-distant future.

A close outcome was not only predictable but actually planned by Berlusconi during his government’s twilight as a way of lessening the impact of possible defeat. A few months before the election, Berlusconi studied polls that showed the center-left winning a substantial majority in parliament with the country’s winner-take-all electoral system. He decided to change the election system and return to the proportional representation that the Italian electorate had strongly rejected in a popular referendum in 1993. The old proportional system was thought to have encouraged a plethora of small parties, unstable government majorities, short-lived revolving-door governments, and ceaseless horse-trading among coalition partners, all of which fostered corruption and lack of clear policies in the post– World War II period.

Berlusconi came to power for the first time in 1994 thanks to the system of winner-take-all, and he declared at once that the majoritarian system was his “religion.” He lost his religion when studies showed his coalition would do better in 2006 with the proportional system. He and his center-right allies calculated that even if the parties of the center-left won, the proportional system would fragment their vote and leave them with a contentious, unstable coalition that would need the center-right’s help in order to govern. In a moment of candor, Berlusconi’s minister for reform, Roberto Calderoli, admitted, “The election law? I wrote it, but it’s a porcata,” a vulgar term that roughly means “a piece of pig shit.” Clearly it was intended to make the country ungovernable for Prodi and his leftist coalition.

Ironically, however, Prodi owes his thin majority to two changes in the electoral law that the Berlusconi government pushed for. The new proportional system includes a “reward” of about sixty extra seats for the majority party in the lower house of parliament. And although the center-left actually lost the popular vote in the Senate, it won two decisive extra seats there because of a new law allowing Italians living overseas to elect their own members of parliament. Berlusconi gambled that overseas voters would give him a majority; they voted three to two against him.

Although a defeat, the election results are a considerable achievement …

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