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.

NOW THAT BERLUSCONI has (apparently) been ousted, it is worth asking: Was his reign a national emergency for Italy, or a partisan emergency for the left? The case against him has always had two main pillars.

The first was that he was using his virtual monopoly on the country's airwaves to subvert public discussion. Italy has only seven television stations. There are four private ones, three of which Berlusconi started from scratch in the 1980s. Another three are government channels. Italy's public broadcasting (RAI) does not work like the BBC, with a journalistic culture that seeks reflexively to prove its "objectivity" by rallying viewers against the state. RAI is a political football, an organ of soft propaganda. RAI journalists have political affiliations and political agendas, and the appointment of a new RAI team, from top to bottom, is often the top priority of a new government.

This being the case, Berlusconi's founding of non-government television made him, objectively speaking, a hero of free speech and open debate. But once Berlusconi got to pick the staff of the three RAI channels on top of his three private ones, things looked different. His unprecedented choice of a political opponent, the leftist journalist Lucia Annunziata, to head public broadcasting won him little credit. The narrative that emerged in Italy's major daily newspapers was that, while the left sought to govern responsibly, Berlusconi sought only to bamboozle viewers with the television-age equivalent of bread and circuses. It was noted that three-quarters of those who watched more than four hours of TV a day voted for Berlusconi in 2001. What is more, Berlusconi's private control of Publitalia, Italy's largest advertising company, gave him even more press leverage than governments ordinarily had. The argument that Berlusconi was running a kind of personal propaganda machine was quite plausible.

But it turned out to be untrue. For one thing, the problem was not Berlusconi as a person but an antitrust system (or lack thereof) that made it hard to found new TV stations. Until five years ago, the left was as happy with this system as the right. Prodi argued throughout the campaign for selling off frequencies to new channels and making appointments apolitically, but his own government in the late 1990s had done a particularly egregious job of stacking the RAI with political loyalists. The best proof that Berlusconi's control of the media neither threatened debate nor subverted Italian democracy is in the exit polls. Those who admitted to backing Berlusconi lagged far, far behind those who actually backed him. This would indicate that the climate of public opinion, far from turning support for Berlusconi into a civic duty, had turned it into an embarrassment. It was more chic, it was more cool, to support the left.

The second pillar of the case against Berlusconi was that he was subverting the independence of the judiciary. Italian justices' Clean Hands investigation, starting in the early 1990s, sent so many top leaders in all parties to jail for bribes that it wound up dismantling the country's party system. For Berlusconi, this was a double-edged sword. He had come to power in the first place because he was not mixed up in the old system of kickbacks--at least not as a politician. But he had made his business fortune under that system, and the judiciary was showing itself insatiable. It wanted to punish the entire old ruling elite to which Berlusconi belonged--the business johns as well as the political prostitutes. Some voters liked Clean Hands, since it punished old-style political graft. Many others didn't like it, since, as Lord Acton might say, a judiciary that is fully "independent"--subject to no political control--can be as absolutely corrupt as any other possessor of absolute power. The Italian political system (much like the American one since Watergate) had grown dangerously complacent about using judicial proceedings to overturn democratic verdicts.

The electoral system (again, like America's) became polarized around judicial battles. Berlusconi's opponents argued that he was wasting his unprecedented legislative majorities only to pass laws protecting him from prosecution. This was not always true. His most recent judicial-reform project, for instance, was to abolish prosecutors' right to appeal acquittals. This abolition certainly sheltered him from the judges, but the right to reopen an acquittal (what we call double jeopardy) would be considered an outrage in most free countries.

It is true that Berlusconi squandered much of his political capital on keeping himself out of prison, and warped the legislative system to do so, stacking the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate with his personal lawyers. Berlusconi, though, was not without evidence that he was the target of undemocratic "red magistrates." Several of his judicial tormentors wound up running for election as part of Prodi's coalition. Most were in the post-Communist Democrats of the Left party (DS), but one, Antonio Di Pietro, headed a party called the Italy of Values, dedicated to the destruction of Berlusconi and asking Italians the question: Where is the Outrage? Italy wound up in a situation similar to that of America late in the Clinton years. Half the public laments that Berlusconi spent most of his five-year term getting himself out of trouble--but the fact is, he is in trouble, and it is his political opponents who have put him there. The difference is that Italian voters are notoriously unbudgeable by arguments. There is a mob on "the right" and a mob on "the left," and, as the political scientist Luca Ricolfi has shown, only about 3 percent of them ever switch camps. Those who thought Berlusconi was a responsible leader thought he was acting like a responsible leader. Those who did not, did not.

Berlusconi in the end was rejected by a far narrower percentage than any pundit had predicted, and not for any of the reasons pundits had said he ought to be. Rather, he lost on one stupid mistake. In this election, the government decided to give the vote to the 2.6 million Italians living abroad. The assumption (wild, in retrospect) was that most Italians overseas were still churchgoing cobblers in Queens and bus drivers in Buenos Aires. More likely, they are sociology professors in Berkeley or sous-chefs in Greenwich Village. They gave Prodi four of the five senate seats they were allowed to vote on and account for all of his two-seat margin.

IN RETROSPECT, the turning point of the campaign probably came in March, when the new governor of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi, released his first economic bulletins. Draghi, a former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, is one of the best free market economists in Italy, and the picture he painted was one of disaster. Italy's growth is at zero. It has underperformed other E.U. countries for 13 of the last 15 years. The network of small businesses that thrived in the 1990s is finding it hard to compete in the global economy. Debt is higher than GDP. The European Commission and the IMF have both downgraded Italy's bonds. So out went the small businessmen who had been (along with the above-mentioned TV addicts) the backbone of Berlusconi's 2001 victory.

It is not easy to see, though, what Berlusconi could have done to arrest this economic decline. He promised five reforms in his Contract with the Italians: cut crime, lower taxes, increase pensions, embark on a huge program of public works, create jobs. He had done most of these, had even given Italy a more flexible labor market, and had raised the retirement age. His heart was set on tax cuts--he notoriously claimed to "understand" those who evaded taxation, and he passed amnesties to permit tax-sheltered money back into the country--but these cuts were minimal, due to pressure from his coalition partners. Further reforms were made politically impossible when Italy's largest union federation put 3 million people into the streets to protest the Berlusconi agenda early in 2002.

And that was perhaps the strangest aspect of the elections. Prodi announced that Italy needed a return to serietà, or seriousness, while painting Berlusconi as a simple mind, out of his depth. But Berlusconi, the "showman," was actually running on an economic program that, although thwarted, did not differ in kind from those of other statesmen of the European center. Prodi, the "economist," was running on public relations and sloganeering. Nothing in his 281-page election manifesto made the slightest sense. This is understandable, given his need to reconcile Communists and free-marketers, but it reduced the left's platform to incoherence. Prodi had two obsessions on the stump: The capital gains tax (which he promised to hike dramatically) and lavore precario (jobs from which you can be fired, which Prodi opposed as unbendingly as the marchers in Paris). Prodi aimed to undo most of Berlusconi's job market reforms. At the same time, he promised to cut the cost of Italian labor. And there was more. Almost any economist would say that Berlusconi's pension reforms--notably, raising the retirement age from 57 to 60--were baby steps in the right direction. But Prodi promised to undo them.

TO ASK AN IMPERTINENT QUESTION, is zero percent growth in Italy all that bad? Consider that Italy today is in the most desperate position of natural demographic decline of any country in history. Its birth rate is already below its death rate, and the difference will widen as the baby boom generation ages. The country's native population is projected to fall by almost 30 percent--from 58 to 40 million--before the year 2050. What kind of long-term investments, aside from nursing homes, would any businessman want to make there? Some of Italy's population loss will be made up by English doctors and lawyers buying second homes in the countryside. Most will be made up by the immigration of unskilled labor from the Arab world. It is doubtful the result will be net growth.

Immigration and Islam made little impact on the campaign, except in one spectacular incident. Roberto Calderoli, a jowly minister from the right-wing regional party the Northern League, who had once addressed a Palestinian-Italian journalist as "that suntanned lady over there," unbuttoned his shirt during a television interview to reveal a T-shirt featuring those Muhammad cartoons published in Denmark that famously led to riots throughout the Muslim world. In Libya, where Italian television is widely picked up, there were riots (perhaps orchestrated by the Qaddafi regime), which left 14 people dead. Calderoli resigned his post and may yet be prosecuted.

The absence of immigration from the campaign may be a tribute to the way the last two governments--Berlusconi's and that of the post-Communist Massimo D'Alema--have handled the issue, through a rising but relatively orderly set of laws imposing quotas. But it is surprising nonetheless. Italy is a latecomer to mass immigration, but today it gets more immigrants than any European country except Spain. Most come from North Africa, the Muslim Balkans, and Romania. In certain ways, Italy is going through the same immigration pains that its neighbors have experienced. Berlusconi's interior minister tried to set up a Muslim council that could advise and negotiate with the government on behalf of the religious community. To the government's consternation, though, the body has come to be dominated by a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group called Ucoii, short for the Union of Italian Islamic Communities and Organizations. Ucoii calls for an Islamic bank with special lending practices, Islamic schools, religious hour, halal food in public institutions, and Muslim holy days off, and it denies Israel's right to exist. This is very much like France's experience with a similar mediating body.

But Italy's immigration politics is sui generis in a number of ways. For one thing, the public discourse is very politically incorrect and hostile to immigration by European standards. You can see this in the popularity of Oriana Fallaci's books, but also in the way, when a crime occurs, Italians will say things like, "Sarà stato un maroquino" ("It was probably a Moroccan"). In March, a 19-year-old Tunisian immigrant from the town of Serramazzoni (22 percent immigrant) was arrested for a knife murder in Pavullo nel Frignano, near Modena, generally a left-wing part of the country. Flyers calling for mass deportations were distributed almost immediately. One local expressed his approval to the Corriere della Sera, saying, "I'm not against all of them, but maybe it's about time to start organizing some roundups." Another Italian anomaly is the unusually large amount of active proselytizing on the part of Muslims. Towards the end of the election, a Turkish group pamphleted every household in one part of Emilia with a bizarre document called "An Exhortation to the Right Way and True Salvation," which was broken into three parts--first, ridicule of the Christian trinity; second, a loving catalogue of favorite Islamic punishments; and third, a defense of Cat Stevens. The rate of conversion to Islam is extremely high in Italy, and includes a number of former ambassadors to Arab countries and radical political figures.

Under such circumstances, a new kind of left-right polarization is emerging, although not yet with such clarity as to replace the obsolescent 20th-century one over which the recent elections were fought. On one hand, Italian cultural conservatism is becoming more vocal. One Christian Democrat in the Berlusconi government provoked a European diplomatic incident when he opined that "Nazi laws and Hitler's ideas are being reborn in the Netherlands with [the Dutch policy of] euthanasia." Italy has a strong movement against teaching of evolution in schools and an organized campaign last year blocked a referendum that would have liberalized Italian law on various kinds of test-tube conception.

Even more interesting are the intellectuals who are beginning to discuss whether Catholics and non-religious people can unite to defend Western identity (or maybe just to figure out what it is). Right now, the leaders of the group are mostly secular, although Pope Benedict XVI converges with their thinking more than did John Paul II, who was more focused on interreligious dialogue. Despite their secularism, a name given them by the Riformista newspaper--i teocon, "the theocons"--has stuck, perhaps because it combines theology with neoconservatism, both less than popular in Italian intellectual circles. One group of theocons surrounds the president of the Italian senate, Marcello Pera, and finds its most sophisticated exponent in the philosopher Gaetano Quagliarello. Another carries on a running debate in the eight-page daily broadsheet Il Foglio, owned by Berlusconi's wife, edited by a Russophone ex-Communist intellectual, and probably the most sophisticated (certainly the drollest) newspaper in Europe. The misnamed theocons are where most of the action is in Italian intellectual life, but they have been roundly calumniated in much of the press, and even by members of the Berlusconi government, including the interior minister Giuseppe Pisanu.

MEANWHILE, the left-leaning cognoscenti who were so keen to unload Berlusconi have a new problem. It is that they hold their leader, the old-fashioned Catholic industrial-policy expert Prodi, in extremely low esteem. Yet Prodi is desperately necessary to his coalition. He is necessary because he is willing to play the role of fig leaf for leftists. The center of gravity in the Prodi government is the Democrats of the Left (DS). Although directly descended from the former Italian Communist party (PCI), the DS is always described as part of the center-left. This is a stretch. True, the PCI did reinvent themselves as social democrats in 1991, and were also the most moderate of the Western Communist parties during the Cold War.

But it won't do to exaggerate: Somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the DS's elected representatives--a group called the correntone, or big current--think the whole move towards social democracy was a big mistake. Correntone followers will happily work with the two unrepentant, hard-line Communist parties in the Prodi coalition. Both are chic and growing. They are Communist Refoundation, led by the eloquent and gentlemanly Fausto Bertinotti; and the Italian Communists, led by Oliviero Diliberto. The parties are distinguished primarily by their willingness to burn American flags at rallies for Hezbollah and Hamas. Bertinotti's followers say no, Diliberto's say yes. This means that roughly a third of Prodi's ruling coalition will consist of hard-line smash-it-with-a-lead-pipe-and-light-it-on-fire Communists and antiglobalists. Their position is considerably strengthened by their proven willingness to undermine Prodi. It was Bertinotti's defection from an earlier left-wing coalition that led to the collapse of Prodi's premiership a decade ago.

This is not to say none of Prodi's followers are centrists--only that they are swamped by tendencies with which they have nothing in common. The Margherita party, Prodi's center of power, is one half of Italy's old Christian Democrats. A party called Rosa nel Pugno ("Rose in the Fist"), led by a charismatic free market politician named Emma Bonino, has always been pro-American and pro-free market. But Rosa and the Margherita cannot compete with the left of the coalition in any way--in votes, passion, or intellectual energy. Rosa, with its 2.5 percent of the vote, can call all it wants for a "community of democracies" and the financial isolation of tyrants. As long as it remains in the Prodi coalition, it merely provides ballast for those who wish no such thing.

On Saturday, March 11, thousands of antiglobalists poured into the streets of Milan to block a scheduled march by a tiny fascist group. Under this pretext, they smashed shops and burned cars up and down the city's main avenue. Berlusconi and Pisanu quickly noted that Francesco Caruso, longtime leader of a violent branch of antiglobalization protesters called the Disobbedienti, was running in Calabria on Bertinotti's Refoundation ticket and would thus serve in any Prodi majority. Bertinotti said that he himself was an antiglobalist, but stressed that he was dedicated to peace, and offered to organize a march to prove it. (When the State Department issued a travel warning after the Milan rampage, Prodi accused the Bush administration of trying to intervene in the campaign to help Berlusconi.)

BERLUSCONI'S OPPONENTS were never able to decide whether to paint him as a threatening tyrant or an embarrassing buffoon. If anything, the latter was closer to the mark. In the end, he was only a brilliant entrepreneur with a strong interest in politics whose ideas--many of them quite good--proved less workable than he had thought, and whose personality proved less refreshing on the hustings than it did in the boardroom.

Maybe Berlusconi had climbed too far in his personal life to take Italy's problems terribly seriously. Towards the end of his first debate with Prodi, he gave an answer to a question about Iran that was clearly baffling the moderators. After going on for half a minute he caught himself and asked: "What country did you say?" When he was told Iran, he said, "Oh. I thought you said Iraq."

In a country known for rough-and-tumble campaigns, Berlusconi's was pussyfooting and hyper-scrupulous. To take one example, the devout Catholic Prodi lost no opportunity to declare his common values with the Catholic middle class. The Catholic pacifist group Pax Christi even sent notes to Berlusconi's Forza supporters implying that it was unchristian to vote for the right. The problem for Prodi was that much of his coalition was agitating strongly for gay marriage, and Refoundation was even running a drag queen named Vladimir Luxuria on its list. Prodi had tried to pacify everyone with a promise of civil unions. But Benedict XVI had termed this "the legislation of evil." It may be possible to reconcile civil unions and Catholic devotion if you're a Jesuit, but not if you're a politician. In an American campaign, no opponent Prodi faced would have let go of this issue until he had sawed the Prodi branch off the Vatican tree, but Berlusconi let it pass.

What is interesting about the coming Prodi administration is that there is nothing in its election manifesto that can serve as a basis for government. The European Union, whose constitutional and regulatory agenda Prodi hopes to make his own, may be vivid in Prodi's mind. (He described his victory as "a profoundly European result," whatever that means.) But for most Europeans it is a mirage, a failed experiment. So what will Prodi do? He could rule according to the wishes of his leftmost coalition partners--already the powerful CGIL union is clamoring for a scrapping of virtually all recent economic reforms--but it is unlikely the centrist parties in his coalition will consent to that.

The only alternative model that presents itself is that of Spanish leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who was, for the Italian left, the patron saint of the election. The DS leader Massimo D'Alema mentioned him, and admiring books on the Spanish leader filled the bookstores. If Zapatero proves the model, the likely result will be a combination of "neutralism" (meaning abandonment of the war on terror and, most certainly, of the war in Iraq) and a series of rushed-through rights-oriented changes in domestic policy. There are several ways to look at such an Italo-Spanish axis: as a "Latin" belt with affinities to the Latin America of Hugo Chávez, as the part of Europe that has been Finlandized by sudden heavy immigration and the close presence of North Africa, or as a "post-Catholic" belt that is taking a different road out of the industrial age than Europe's northern Protestant societies. About the only safe bet is that Italians will have less to laugh about in the next government than they did in the last one.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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