Silvio Berlusconi, a master of the cool confident look, has many Italians in despair over the suffering reality of their country. When he called a confidence vote in Italy’s parliament on Thursday, it was the 51st time in three years, and he has governed with a minority 90 times. Each time he has been asked to quit.
The prime minister said: “We reply that we will never, and particularly not at this moment, bow to this request. Not because we want to safeguard our power but because of our conviction that there is no credible alternative government.”
The alternative — the opposition — did not bother attend a speech by Berlusconi. He has always managed to survive and come back. But Berlusconi’s coalition this time is a shadow of its former self. He is 75, his image is lousy and his term of office ends in 2013.
Yet the premier’s fractious coalition is under steep mounting criticism for its response to the financial crisis. There is speculation as to how long economy minister Giulio Tremonti will stay. The two have appeared increasingly at odds even though abroad Tremonti is seen as a rare sure value in the government.
Berlusconi has been prime minister for eight years all together, and his popularity rating has never been this low: 24 percent. Angry Italians sick of his repeated scandals and the state of the economy have been camping out in Rome. Some 200,000 were expected at a demonstration in the capital on Saturday.
Italy is 1.9 trillion euros in debt. That is 20 percent more than its annual income. The budget deficit is around four percent. Its growth barely has a pulse at 0.3 percent. Unemployment is more than eight percent — but for young people one in every four is without work.
Ten years ago Italy was one of Europe’s foremost economies. Yet newspaper headlines are far from polite in lamenting how far it has fallen, including the steady fare of sex and corruption scandals Berlusconi has treated it to.
Today, Berlusconi’s economic policy has done his personal reputation no good, and his personal reputation may have hurt the economy, with investors turning their backs on Italy as trust in its leader suffers.
Berlusconi may have just survived the confidence in parliament, but his government remains divided and the prime minister weakened.
What does this mean for Italy in the midst of an economic crisis and trying to press ahead with much needed reforms?
For a view on that we spoke to Sergio Romano, a historian, diplomat and columnist for Italy’s biggest newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Manuela Sparpellini, euronews: “The government survived — but only just — how can it go on?”
“First of all, it didn’t just survive: 316 was exactly the number of votes that Berlusconi was aiming for. That represents a good result. So all in all, the government continues and with a majority. The problem is that within the government there are some very important sections that are beginning to doubt Berlusconi and are starting to think that their future with Berlusconi is an uncertain one. So it is being said that this vote of confidence will only mean stability for an indeterminate period of time.”
euronews: “Berlusconi has won the vote of confidence in parliament, but is he convincing the financial markets?”
“There is not much rationality in the markets. We should not expect rational reactions from the market. The question is rather what might happen on the day that Berlusconi goes. Probably even then the markets would also react with bewilderment and scepticism. They would believe afresh that Italy is in crisis. No, the problem is Italy, the problem is not the markets where we have only limited influence.”
euronews: “Does this vote restore Italy’s credibility in Europe and around the world?”
“Europe has – of necessity – to deal with whoever is the leader of Italy right now. If we didn’t have Berlusconi, it would probably improve Italy’s credibility, there’s no doubt he is a problem and I think the majority of Italians are aware of that. “
euronews: “Is this vote enough to set Italy up to face the great challenges ahead?”
“I believe that Berlusconi is thinking about early elections in the spring of next year. Don’t forget — and it’s perhaps difficult to understand this outside Italy — there are moves underway to hold a referendum to change the current electoral laws, laws which Berlusconi and his coalition partner Umberto Bossi favour as it allows them to control their parties. If the Italian Constitutional Court decides that the referendum can go ahead, Berlusconi has no choice, no alternative, he will have to call early elections because they prefer to have an election under the current law, rather than waiting for it to be changed.”