The Magazine

Baloney Beats a Meatball

It took an unsavory coalition for Romano Prodi to squeeze past Silvio Berlusconi.

May 1, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 31 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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SHORTLY BEFORE THEIR ELECTIONS, Italians discovered that three-quarters of the women who perform on phone-sex lines were planning to vote for the incumbent prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The source of this information was Berlusconi himself--who admitted to making frequent use of such lines in the campaign's closing days. Berlusconi recently chatted on TV about his facelift. He has even appeared in public in a bandana after a hair-transplant operation. In a group photo from a summit in 2002, he can be seen making the two-finger cuckold sign over the head of Spanish foreign minister Josep Pique. He once commented during a meeting with Danish premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the handsome Rasmussen would make a more suitable lover for his (Berlusconi's) wife than the mayor of Venice, with whom she was rumored to be having an affair.

The 69-year-old Berlusconi started his career as a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman and lounge singer in his native Milan, and wound up the richest man in Italy, with a fortune estimated at $12 billion. He is probably the most brilliant businessman Italy produced in the second half of the 20th century. With help from political allies, he parlayed a real estate-development firm into a media, advertising, and investment empire. In the early 1990s, amid corruption scandals that sent many of Italy's most powerful politicians to prison, exile, and suicide, Berlusconi stepped into politics much as Ross Perot did at the same time, and appealed to voters in the same way--as a plain-spoken outsider who understood well enough how large organizations worked that he could strike government corruption at its roots. Berlusconi, unlike Perot, got elected. Although his coalition did not last a year, he returned to power in 2001 on a raft of reformist promises resembling Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. Berlusconi proved a steady ally to the United States (sending a large contingent to Iraq) and an equally steady disappointment when it came to reforming the system. Five years in office made him Italy's longest-serving prime minister since the aftermath of World War II. At times he has been its most popular.

But there has always been another superlative attached to Berlusconi. He is, without question, a greater embarrassment to his country's social and intellectual elites than any present-day national leader--including George W. Bush. In Italy's salons, Berlusconi is seen as a shyster, a goombah, and even a moron. In these circles, the recent election campaign was seen as a referendum on Berlusconi, and it was impossible to imagine the Italian public would do anything but reject him. His House of Liberties coalition (CDL) had been pummeled in regional elections a year before, and his Forza Italia party was way below its old scores. Polls before the election consistently found him far behind, sometimes in double digits, but never closer than 5 points.

Berlusconi commissioned Bill Clinton's old pollsters--Penn, Schoen and Berland--to do an independent survey. They found the race too close to call, tighter than one percentage point. Berlusconi explained that the Italian people would never be so stupid (he used an Italian obscenity for the word "stupid") as to vote against their own interests. And you could see his point. Berlusconi was opposed by a collection of soft and hard leftists fronted by the business professor and former premier Romano Prodi, who had spent the last half-decade in Brussels as president of the European Commission. There, his political opinions, which date from sometime in the mid-1970s, hardened. Prodi is anti-American and anti-British. His statements since the election show him to be committedly pro-Hamas. He is a defender of the old-fashioned welfare state at a time when most European parties of the left are abandoning it. And he is a believer that the solution to all economic and social problems is "more Europe" at a time when voters have rejected the European Union so decisively that that body hardly exists anymore in the sense Prodi means it.

In the end, Berlusconi was almost right. The election was a virtual tie. Berlusconi lost to Prodi by a few thousand votes. There were rancorous allegations of fraud, the worst of which were rejected by the Italian Supreme Court last week. But Berlusconi has not, as of this writing, conceded. Prodi finds himself abjectly dependent on the hard-line Communists in his coalition (as distinct from the post-Communists who are his coalition's mainstream). Italians find themselves with a government far, far to the left of the one even its supporters voted for. They have fallen into polarization and anger, which can last long after such a contested election, as Americans have discovered over the past six years.