In the Shadow of Berlusconi

The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi

by Alexander Stille
Penguin, 384 pp., $25.95

The Italian national elections in April of this year produced the closest result in the sixty-year history of the Italian Republic. In the elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, a mere 25,000 votes separated the two sides. In those for the Senate, the outcome depended on the vote of Italians resident abroad, who for the first time had six senatorial seats reserved specially for them. No one expected them to vote against Berlusconi. They did precisely that—with four seats going to the center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi, one to an independent candidate, and only one to Berlusconi’s coalition of the center-right.

Only 42 percent of those eligible to vote abroad did so, and complicated procedures led to many invalid returns; the net result was that Romano Prodi’s unwieldy multiparty coalition scraped into power. Supporting him are members of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) which includes much of the former Communist Party; the smaller independent (or “refounded”) Communists, Socialists, Radicals, and Greens; and various strands of the former Christian Democratic Party which was for most of the postwar era Italy’s dominant party. It is a bewildering coalition for those used to simpler political systems. Against them Silvio Berlusconi has lined up an opposition consisting of his own Forza Italia party, which remains, despite the election defeat, the largest single force in this very fragmented parliament (23.7 percent of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies); the post-Fascists of Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance (12.3 percent); the Northern League of Umberto Bossi (4.6 percent); and the moderate Catholic component of the center-right led by the independently minded Pierferdinando Casini (6.8 percent).

In the Chamber of Deputies, Prodi’s coalition has 348 seats to the center-left’s 281, thanks to a change in the election law in December 2005 that awards bonus seats to the winning coalition to ensure it has approximately a 54 percent majority. Prodi’s two-seat majority in the Senate has the additional support of most of the life senators, but even so he has fewer than ten votes to spare in the upper house. Governing in these conditions is a complex and tense matter. The new prime minister has made an uncertain start and questions have been raised about how long the current coalition can last. Most of his energies in the last few months have been dedicated to preparing a budget aimed at correcting the rapidly deteriorating situation in the country’s public finances, an unwelcome legacy bequeathed to him by the Berlusconi government. It is a thankless task, rendered more difficult by the weakness of the Italian economy, which has been less and less competitive in world markets.

In order to survive, Prodi needs to find one or two themes on which to unite the country. One could certainly be the question of secondary and higher education, an issue which touches every Italian family, since Italy lags far behind its European neighbors in the quality of its schools. Resources are scarce, but to invest them single-mindedly…

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