Can Italy Survive Berlusconi?

If history seems likely to rank Silvio Berlusconi as an inconsequential Prime Minister of Italy, it will surely remember him as an extraordinary – and extraordinarily bizarre – one. Promising one thing and delivering another was not so much a weakness of his government as its organizing principle.

Given the erratic nature of Berlusconi’s rule, it is no surprise that, ever since the 2001 election that returned him to power, the center-left l’Unione coalition has won all subsequent elections – administrative, regional, and European. Yet the left’s prospects in the upcoming parliamentary election are far from certain, and Berlusconi seems far from doomed.

Given the country’s economic conditions, one would think that Italy is ripe for decisive change. For the last four years, average growth in incomes has been a mere 0.3%, compared to 1.5% in the European Union, and in the past two years public debt has again started to rise.

Moreover, the strategy of Berlusconi’s ruling center-right Casa della Libertà coalition has been to tread water and wait for Europe’s economy to pick up instead of tackling Italy’s structural difficulties. As a result, the government is criticized not only by the unions, but also by the employers’ association, Confindustria, which in 2001 gave Prime Minister Berlusconi strong support.