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Spaghetti Politics: Slippery Silvio isn't finished yet

Author bio: 
Richard Cottrell

This being Italy, it will be a long time before the spaghetti finally unravels and Silvio Berlusconi actually does throw in the keys. Technically, he is not required by the constitution to resign. What he lost on Tuesday was his face, not his job. Ten deputies abstained on a minor piece of legislation connected to the austerity bill which has begun its ponderous course through parliament.

It was an affront, but not a loss of confidence. The grudging announcement he made after the vote that he would resign was a maneuver, not a promise. The master of escapology whose career has stretched over 17 years in public life knows perfectly that he can resign in slow motion, allowing natural events to take their course.

Italians are caught in a bind. They have had enough of Berlusconi, the sex scandals, the court cases which allege that he paid for sex with an under-age glamorous Moroccan floozy. They are tired of the cheesy gaffes. They have had more than enough of his endless brushes with the courts. His lambasts at ‘communist’ judges are well past their sell-by date.

But they are also largely united against the EU-dictated austerity program. So is Slippery Silvio. This may well prove his ace in the hole.

He announced his resignation (eventually) because the Tuesday vote made clear that he had lost his commanding hold on the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house in the Italian system. (Think the US House of Representatives).

But first he will push through the reforms that are supposed to clear up the sclerotic Italian economy, get a handle on public debt (120% of GNP) and prevent the collapse of the European single currency.

Fat hopes. If Berlusconi has any firm political convictions, they are the following.

He is a registered agnostic when it comes to Italian membership of the EU. He believes it was a singular mistake to give up the lira in favor of the euro. He does not believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with the Italian economy. A great deal of fuss is being made in Brussels about nothing. (On this he is largely correct).

After all, aren’t the restaurants packed, airlines virtually rationing seats, Italian small business doing better than the European average? Or so he says.

Italy’s public indebtedness ranks on the scale of third after Greece and Portugal. It is roughly on a par with another seriously ill patient, Spain. Unfortunately, Signor Berlusconi is not an economist (although he once lied to France’s Nicholas Sarkozy that he studied the dismal science at the Sorbonne).

His degree - in public relations - was gained at Milan University. He has been playing the PR game ever since. The field is now wide open for another demonstration of his remarkable skills in the great game of political survival.

As I write Italy is locked down by an almost total closure of gas stations. As part of the austerity package gas retailers are supposed to make stinging back payments to the taxman. In quite a short time the country will come to a standstill.

This is just a foretaste of things to come. Italians of all walks of life do not see why they should lose their jobs or watch their firms go down, just to save the euro, which they despise anyway.

By now you will have caught my drift. Berlusconi’s undated resignation will yellow and age as the artificial austerity crisis begins to bite. He counts on that. And he counts on the reluctance of all Italian politicians of any persuasion to welcome early elections.

If there were elections now, the opposition socialists might win a majority, but it would be tight. Of course they would instantly find themselves with the same austerity baggage that weighs on the Right wing coalition which Berlusconi leads. Turkeys and Christmas come to mind.

He has another card to play. The self made media mogul controls the broadcasting channels, with his own stations and his power of appointment over the RAI state broadcasting organisation. His popular newspapers fly off the newstands. Slightly adapting the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, he is both the medium and the message.

That is precisely how the great wriggler has made himself the longest serving statesman since Benito Mussolini.

The game will likely be played as follows. The coalition will drag their heels on the austerity packlage, chipping away bits here and there. The legislation itself will be salami-sliced as it winds through the upper and lower houses (who are broadly equal in power, like the US system). The prime minister can count on the unions to stir up a useful amount of trouble.

The opposition is csught betwen a rock and a hard place. Are they for or against the austerity program?. If they are against, then they are for Berlusconi. In the land of Machiavelli there is nothing strange in this.

Machiavelli wrote all those centuries ago that the people should always respect and preserve a strong leader. It is true that Machiavelli may not be Berluscon's bedtime reading (He is usually too busy anyway with other more relaxing nocturnal distractions). But he knows that Italians do admire what they see as courage and strength.

Berlusconi's great idol, Benito Mussolini, played that act for all it was worth to public squares. Mussolini cleverly judged the Italian temperament as largely feminine. So does Berlusconi. He toys and teases with the Italian people, like his many girl friends.

He remains the most commanding figure in the Italian political landscape. If he nods off at G20 galas, then everybody is entitled to a nap. He is above all a populist.

Frankly speaking, he sees the great austerity crisis and the prospect of widespread disruption across the nation as a gift from the gods. Were it not for this unwelcome burden imposed on Italy by detestable foreign rulers, then he really would be in serious trouble. His agenda, such it was, had run out of any ideological fuel. A near octogenarian with a problem keeping his pants on had ceased to be amusing, or electable.

Now all that has changed. Italians subliminally recall that interference by the French and the Germans in their affairs generally leads to no good. Sarkozy and Merkul are bitterly disliked. So, all hail the hero who will stand up for the Italian soul and independence once again.

Unlikely as it may seem, he may pull it off.

Richard Cottrell