11.03.11

Bail Out, Berlusconi

His government is collapsing and threatening to take Europe down with it. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the Italian P.M.’s wretched final days.

Watching Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi lately is like witnessing a slow- motion train wreck. The embattled prime minister, now 75, has lost the Teflon shield that has kept him in power for the better part of 18 years despite countless scandals and legal woes, from charges that he abetted underage prostitution to allegations of criminal corruption. Facing his lowest-ever approval rating at just under 25 percent, along with opposition from all sides—including the defection of six key members of his ruling coalition this week—he is clearly sliding toward a squalid end to his epic reign over Italy.

During this week’s G20 summit in Cannes, France, Berlusconi has been the face of failure. While the summit leaders have focused much of their attention on the volatile economic and political situation in Greece, the second biggest worry is Italy’s own wobbling economy and Berlusconi’s oblivious denial that his resignation could pave the way for the country to pass the tough austerity measures needed. If he were to resign and a technocratic government appointed as a placeholder until early elections next spring, analysts predict the austerity measures would swiftly pass. But as long as he stays in power, Italy—and the EU with it—will be hostage to his politics as usual.

Berlusconi’s dubious reputation on the world stage is at an all-time low. He has earned his reputation as a master of the gaffe, repeating embarrassing comments about American president Barack Obama’s “suntan.” More recently, he was caught on a wiretapped phone call describing German chancellor Angela Merkel as “an unfuckable lard ass”, making it particularly tense when the two have to discuss the economic crisis for which Italy desperately needs Germany’s support. His phone call was tapped not as a part of a government coup, but as part of a larger investigation into one of his close associates who allegedly doubled as his party-girl fixer and who is currently under investigation for involvement in a prostitution ring that supplied paid escorts to the prime minister’s parties. The associate is also facing blackmailing charges for allegedly extorting money from Berlusconi in order to stay quiet about the girls.

Berlusconi’s lurid woes have dominated the European press for months, and it’s little wonder that during pre-summit meetings in Brussels last week, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visibly smirked at the mere mention of Berlusconi’s ability to deliver when asked about Berlusconi’s prospects for a solid economic plan. And in a newspaper interview with Czech newspaper Lidové noviny, deputy prime minister and acting foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg callously said Berlusconi had literally “fucked away” any opportunity for economic reforms, causing the Italian ambassador to the Czech Republic to demand an apology.

Berlusconi has never been particularly impressive on the world stage, but the tide is also starting to change in Italy as well. In Rome, the question is no longer whether Berlusconi’s government will fall, but when. The leftist opposition promises that it will be next week, when they pledge to force his ouster by taking advantage of the six defectors from his support base. “We think that next week will be a week in parliament where we try to force the situation if Berlusconi does not resign before,” Enrico Letta, deputy general secretary of the opposition party, told Reuters. “The time is over. We need, now, an emergency government to replace the current administration, which is dragging Italy to disaster.”

From the floor of the G20 in France, Berlusconi assured his EU colleagues that he would call a new confidence vote within 15 days, which could spell trouble if more of his party faithful bail. Historically, Berlusconi has been able to persuade defectors back to his fold with enticements like government posts and other lucrative rewards. But this time, with Italy increasingly under pressure to stay solvent lest they bring down the whole European Union, few believe he can pull it off again.

In Rome, the question is no longer whether Berlusconi’s government will fall, but when.

Still, Berlusconi has defied logic many times before. Since he was first elected in 1994, he has been investigated for scores of crimes ranging from Mafia collusion to tax evasion. He is currently on trial in three separate cases including one for abuse of power for calling a Milanese police station late one night to spring 17-year old “Ruby the Heartbreaker" a Moroccan belly dancer who was allegedly also his paid sex partner. He admits giving her around $60,000, but says it wasn’t for sex. Instead, the cash was for a hair removal machine for a beauty salon she wanted to open. As prime minister, he enjoys partial immunity from additional criminal trials and he is given a pass from attending court dates if his duties as head of state are a “legitimate impediment” from his attending trial. If his government falls, he will also lose that protection from further prosecution, which many believe is the real reason he so desperately wants to hold on to his job.

At least he has something to fall back on if he loses his job as prime minister. Aside from his multibillion euro holdings in his media empire, Berlusconi is also an accomplished musician. A third album of Neapolitan love songs he penned with long-time friend Mariano Apicella had been delayed due to the sensitive nature of the lyrics in the context of both the sex scandals and the economic crisis. Now Il Vero Amore (or The True Love) is set to be released on November 22. Whether he is still in office by then will be the true test of whether Italians share that love.