Berlusconi's long survival more surprising than decline

Rome Thu Oct 13, 2011 3:57pm IST

Italian Minister of Agriculture Francesco Saverio Romano (L) talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during a debate at the lower house of parliament in Rome September 28, 2011. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Italian Minister of Agriculture Francesco Saverio Romano (L) talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during a debate at the lower house of parliament in Rome September 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile

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Rome (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi finally seems close to being kicked out of power after an extraordinary 17-year political career but his demise, when it comes, will be a lot less surprising than how long he has lasted.

The 75-year-old prime minister resembles a boxer who has absorbed so many killer punches that it would only take a finger to push him over, and yet he is still standing, held up by willpower, vested interests and Italy's political inertia.

To the astonishment of foreign observers, Berlusconi has managed to cling to power despite a laundry list of scandals and setbacks that would have long ago buried politicians in most other parts of the world.

He faces four separate trials for fraud and having sex with a minor and risks more charges in a new prostitution case which has filled newspapers with more lurid revelations about orgies that have introduced the phrase "bunga bunga" into the international lexicon.

One leaked wiretap had him boasting of having sex with eight women in one night and saying his sexual activity made it difficult for him to find time to govern.

He has suffered a long string of political defeats in recent months and is at permanent loggerheads with his own Economy Minister, Giulio Tremonti.

His diplomatic gaffes and vulgar off-the-cuff remarks are legendary, provoking contempt among several of his European peers, who are said to avoid being photographed with him.

His government has been condemned by everybody from the Roman Catholic church to the employers federation. He remains unrepentant, vowing to stay until the end of his term in 2013.

But this week commentators were almost universally predicting his knockout, although probably not in a Friday confidence motion called after his government lost a vote on state finances that should have been routine.

There are increasing forecasts of elections in spring 2012, a year ahead of schedule.

BERLUSCONI "HISTORY"

"He is toast, he is history, he has gone. He can stick around six months but he is done with. The country has had enough," Franco Pavoncello, political science professor at Rome's John Cabot university, told Reuters.

President Giorgio Napolitano, increasingly involved in day to day politics, issued an unusually blunt statement on Wednesday saying the government must show it was capable of taking vital measures to address a mounting economic crisis.

Outgoing central bank governor Mario Draghi joined the baleful chorus, warning that Italy had already wasted too much time in implementing crucial economic reforms.

The government has been so consumed by policy disputes, internal squabbles and manoeuvring by party rebels that it has repeatedly delayed measures to reverse a decade of slow growth.

Opposition to Berlusconi has been crystallised by the euro zone debt crisis, where Italy's indecision and political uncertainties have pushed it into the markets' cross-hairs as the most likely next domino if Greece defaults.

"Italy has become a proxy for euro zone risk," said Nicholas Spiro of Spiro Sovereign Strategy. "Over the past few months, a 'Berlusconi premium' has been built into Italy's borrowing costs."

Yet even now many analysts believe Berlusconi will survive Friday's vote and fight on for a few more rounds because squabbling factions within his coalition are not yet ready to replace him.

He is being held up by the same factor that has kept him in the ring until now -- the lack of an alternative for the dominant and deeply conservative bloc of Italian voters.

Sergio Romano, a former ambassador to Moscow and respected commentator, said rebels in Berlusconi's PDL party were frightened of what might happen if they dumped him now, because control would slip out of their hands and into those of Napolitano if the government fell.

He could then appoint a technocrat government, robbing them of real power and its considerable perks.

"If a group of deputies inside the PDL already had a precise strategy, then probably the days of Berlusconi would be numbered. But we are not there yet," Romano told Reuters.

DOUBT AND UNCERTAINTY

"Maybe on Friday uncertainty and doubt and the desire not to provoke the fall of the government at a time when there is no precise strategy on what to do the next day will prevail ...they are scared of going to the polls in a state of chaos."

Berlusconi's communication skills and ability to pull in the conservative vote once gave him unchallenged primacy. "He was the glue, the cement," said Romano.

Now his personal scandals and political mistakes have led many senior coalition figures to regard him as a liability.

Whatever happens on Friday, prospects for Berlusconi look bleak--another reason for his reluctance to step down.

He says more than 1,000 magistrates have brought 31 prosecutions against him since he entered politics and in repeated diatribes accuses them of being leftwingers bent on perverting democracy.

Once he loses his power to delay or block legal cases he is thought likely to face a new rash of prosecutions.

"The moment he drops out he is probably going to be eaten alive," Pavoncello said.

(editing by Janet McBride)

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