Italian politics faces turning point after Berlusconi’s demise

By Barry Moody, Reuters

ROME — The fall of Silvio Berlusconi, driven from power to the jeers of hostile demonstrators, is likely to trigger a major political upheaval in Italy like the one that brought him to power 17 years ago. But while the ignominious end of the flamboyant media magnate, who was harried by crowds yelling “clown” when he resigned on Saturday, undoubtedly marks a turning point, what will follow is still deeply uncertain. “Getting rid of Berlusconi is the end of an era. Whether it is the beginning of a new era or the beginning of a slow falling apart and drift is a big question,” said Vivien Schmidt, international relations professor at Boston university.

Berlusconi loomed large over this country for nearly two decades after bursting onto the scene in 1994 after a major corruption scandal swept away the old order. His charisma, communication skills, near control of the media and huge wealth combined with political dominance to give him enormous power that extended into all areas of Italian life.

Plagued by lurid sex scandals and court cases for fraud, he is accused of lowering the quality not just of political life but of society, with the scantily clad starlets who starred on his television shows and allegedly attended orgies at his villa acting as a damaging role model for young women. His removal, with no comparable figure in the wings to replace him, would mark a revolution by itself but the traumatic way he was finally pushed out, with Italy on the brink of an economic catastrophe, has set in train other forces that could transform the political landscape. “It changes the tenor. I think we are going to see a different temperament in Italian politics, there is no great charismatic figure like Berlusconi who will dominate the stage,” said Professor Erik Jones of Bologna’s Johns Hopkins university. The installation of a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner Mario Monti — brought in by Italy’s president to end a crisis when Italy’s borrowing costs rocketed to unsustainable levels — is likely to strengthen forces tearing apart the old order. Dilemma Both left and right will face the dilemma of supporting reforms pursued by Monti to restore international confidence but which will be very unpopular with some of their constituents. Berlusconi’s own PDL party is badly split over whether to support a government many consider undemocratic. Experts say the party, built entirely around Berlusconi, could collapse, setting off a major political realignment in the center and right. The crisis has also caused tensions in Berlusconi’s coalition ally the Northern League with its mercurial founder Umberto Bossi in danger of suffering the same fate as his partner. The League is likely to end the coalition with the PDL and go into opposition, which would cause turmoil in many municipal governments in the North where the two parties are allied.