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11.07.11

Berlusconi’s Last Hurrah

As Europe’s debt police shift focus to Italy, even the playboy prime minister’s inner circle is turning on him. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the looming downfall—and whether he can pull off a comeback.

Silvio Berlusconi is teetering on the brink of collapse once again, but unlike so many times before, this time he just might fall. But even if the 75-year-old media mogul resigns or gets pushed out of office this week, it doesn’t mean he’s gone for good.

What makes this crisis so much more acute than the dozens before it is the fact that, not unlike Julius Caesar, Berlusconi may find his long-suffering supporters poised to stab him in the back. Giuliano Ferrara, a former spokesman for Berlusconi and now editor of the newspaper Il Foglio, detailed the scenario in which his former boss would resign with a simple headline: “Final Phase. New Beginning.”

His interior minister, Roberto Maroni, a member of the Northern League party, which plays a crucial role in his ruling coalition, conceded on Italian television that their razor-thin majority had just slipped away, then added: “It’s not enough to have a majority, you need a cohesive majority that agrees on what it should do. The crisis is here. It does no good for [Berlusconi] to deny it.”

With so many now predicting the prime minister’s imminent fall, the question of timing seems to come down to logistics. On Monday morning, rumors swirled through Rome about his resignation, stoked by his own party members. By noon, Berlusconi had put up a denial on his Facebook page, saying the rumors were unfounded. Later in the day, some political pundits wondered whether he'd changed his mind about the resignation after lunch with his grown children, who run his media enterprise. By late afternoon, the rumors were that Berlusconi might resign on primetime television—his preferred soapbox. Anyone following the Berlusconi hashtag on Twitter found it hard to keep up with the denials from his own party members and the wishful thinking by his opposition. 

Allies close to the prime minister admit his party faithful have advised him that resigning is better than “ending like Prodi”—a reference to Berlusconi’s predecessor, Romano Prodi, who in 2008 was the last prime minister to fall at the hands of a confidence vote, ultimately paving the way for Berlusconi to win in the elections that followed. “I am sure that he realizes the gravity of the situation,” Maroni told reporters on Monday. “I hope there is an initiative to avoid coming to Parliament to repeat an end like that of Prodi.”

But on Monday night, Berlusconi remained defiant. After denying rumors of his resignation, he seemed ever more desperate in his pleas to the press via his remaining stalwart supporters that indeed he does have the numbers to hold his majority. And if he doesn’t, he said he’d rather face his former loyalists in the halls of Parliament than resign before a vote, saying, “I want to look at the faces of my traitors.”

On Tuesday, Parliament will meet to debate and then vote on a tough-love financing bill that grew out of last week’s G20 confab, in which Italy promised to pass tough austerity measures. It is not a confidence vote per se, but it will be a true test of Berlusconi’s staying power, and, if he loses, it will very likely signal the end of his era.

If he clings to power against the advice of his supporters, analysts say he can write his political eulogy.

If he does lose Tuesday’s finance vote, Giorgio Napolitano, the president of Italy, could dissolve the government and then ask leaders from all sides to form a solidarity government led by someone like popular former EU commissioner Mario Monti, which would be less political than a democratically elected one. Or Napolitano could ask leaders from the elected center-right to form a new government, likely led by Berlusconi’s right-hand man, Gianni Letta, to carry on its mandate until 2013—a move that many believe would result in a similar stalemate to the one Italians are now in.

If Napolitano asks for a solidarity government, he will then have to call elections, likely for early 2012. An interim government of any stripe might even restructure the electoral laws that now keep Italians hostage to conglomerate-style coalitions instead of direct representation. Berlusconi could theoretically run in those elections, if he has a support base. If he resigns before losing a confidence vote—effectively falling on his sword for the good of the country—he might have a better chance in elections if he runs again. If he clings to power against the advice of his supporters, analysts say he can write his political eulogy.  

No matter what happens, Italy’s priority is passing the austerity measures so desperately needed to save its debt-ridden economy—and effectively all of the euro zone—especially now that the country has agreed to allow its fiscal health to be scrutinized by the International Monetary Fund. It’s increasingly clear that the only way that will happen is without Berlusconi at the helm. Now it’s just a question of time.