Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Goodnight for the Knight? The Professor the lesser?


The Italian general election takes place in a week, with a possible end in sight to the reign of perma-tanned, pate-thatched, nose-jobbed, oily Silvio Berlusconi, a man who makes Rupert Murdoch seem like a modest, retiring, unambitious sort.

Since Italian politics is currently divided rather neatly into Left and Right, the polls make more sense than they normally would. Or they would, if only they didn't show the two sides neck and neck. Which begs the question all foreign observers must be asking: why do so many Italians want to vote for the clearly dodgy Berlusconi (who somehow won himself the nickname 'the Knight')? How can a man with so much scandal and the smell of corruption hanging around him attract so many voters? How can they bear to see him with his hands on the levers of government?

To understand this, one must bear three things in mind:

Berlusconi does not command the poll rating on his own. The rating of 48-50% is for his coalition of the Right, which consists not only of his party, Forza Italia, but also of the Alleanza Nazionale (the ex-Fascists), the Lega Nord (mostly Venetian separatists - it's a bit like Surrey wanting to declare independence from the rest of the UK) and the Union of Christian Democrats (the people who used to run Italy in the good old days - IRONY ALERT) who recently pulled out of the government because they couldn't bear to work with the Fascists. Each of these groups commands strong support in different regions of the country, and Berlusconi's party rides on their coat-tails. Furthermore, the Left is made up of a similarly disparate group of parties and their coalition leader, Romano Prodi (nicknamed 'the Professor', which will probably cost him a few votes), doesn't even have his own party, unlike Berlusconi.

Second, Berlusconi has a number of things in his favour. Italians find him attractive (yes, I know...). He has a certain charisma compared with Prodi, who can come across as a little stuffy. Italian nationalism has grown in recent years, not held back by the hosting of the Winter Olympics in Turin, and Berlusconi is not afraid to appeal to the basest populism. Berlusconi also controls many TV channels in Italy, which guarantees him massive media coverage (although he has been caught out when he strays beyond safe territory, as he found when he was interviewed on Rai Tre, a channel he does not control). And while there is a strong and loyal left-wing tradition among many Italians, there is an equally strong anti-left tradition among others - and Berlusconi has not been slow to throw slurs about a Communist threat lying behind Prodi's benign face.

And the third factor is that Italians have got used to carrying on with their own affairs despite the government. This is a country in which hundreds of directly contradictory laws are still on the statute book, in which favours and bribes are a normal part of everyday life, in which religion, fashion and football take a front seat in the minds of the population and government is relegated to "those people in Rome", in which legal transgression is greeted as often with a "yeah, whatever" as with an "oh, dear". Many Italians can't decide whom to vote for, because they are convinced it doesn't matter.

Anyway, the practice of television debates has leaked over from America, and Berlusconi and Prodi have had a number of set-tos on national networks in the past few weeks - the latest took place yesterday, and was a particularly bad-tempered affair. The Italian press reacted along party lines, so there is no clear indication of who won - however, you know that Berlusconi is rattled when he loses his temper. Let's hope the weekend's poll wipes that irritating smile off his face for good.

[EDIT: Worth reading Martin Kettle on why Berlusconi isn't all bad, except that he is. Worth reading the comments, too.]


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