Silvio Berlusconi: The padrone is back and he means business

Silvio Berlusconi is determined to get things done this time around. He has sprung some surprises already, so, where next for Italy?
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The Independent Online

You read it here first: last week was a triumph for Silvio Berlusconi. For years his political genius has been a well-kept secret. The rest of us, convinced that he was a buffoon, scrabbled around for explanations for his success in winning elections: he had turned the population of his country into zombies through his dreadful television channels; he had done a deal with the Mafia whereby elections dropped into his lap in return for favours; an intrinsically amoral country saw him as its authentic representative, their co-conspirator in cheating the exchequer and out-foxing the judiciary ....

The truth is simpler. Italians are fed up with governments that do nothing; that scrape into power in cynical coalitions, stick around just long enough to get some friends out of jail and give juicy contracts to the rest. They looked around Europe and saw Blair, Zapatero and Sarkozy promising big things, getting into power and then actually taking steps to fulfill these promises. And they said, yes please, we'll have some of that, too.

The week began with strangely boring photographs on the front pages of the one or two newspapers which are friendly to Mr Berlusconi. The pictures showed the Naples shoreline: apartment blocks, the bay, the fort in the distance, a few cars and pedestrians.

The point about the picture was what it did not contain: rubbish mountains. Naples has been struggling for years to find a solution to the most elemental challenge of all: what to do with waste. Earlier initiatives generated new problems when the offices of the special commissioners appointed to sort things out turned into money-spinning rackets. On the campaign trail Berlusconi promised that, if elected, he would hold his first cabinet meeting in the city, and dedicate himself to finding a lasting solution. We didn't believe him: Mr Berlusconi didn't do solutions to real-world ills. But we were wrong.

Back in power with a crushing majority, he rolled into Naples and threatened to crack the whip. He promised to clear the city's streets of rubbish by the end of July, enforcing the re-opening of landfill sites with the army if necessary, and mandating the urgent construction of new hi-tech incinerators. The week before last, he pronounced those fateful words, "mission accomplished". And it was apparently true.

The papers that disdain him buried the news well inside. Others spoke of the rubbish being swept under the carpet, of the problem being dispersed to remote parts of the province, of the rubbish being exported to Germany. In the short term at least it didn't really matter: Naples was presentable. Mr Berlusconi declared that Naples was "now a civilised city of the West once again."

He had demonstrated two things: this time he is in earnest about getting things done; and despite the incoherence of his coalition, he can impose his will on it. It's the power of the padrone, the power of money. It may be anachronistic, but it works.

The danger, one that has haunted Italy since Mussolini, is that it all comes down to the will and ego of one man, a man of unlimited purchasing power and colossal self-esteem, who last week took a step which historians may see as fateful: he put himself beyond the reach of the courts. The senate approved a new law giving Mr Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while in office. President Giorgio Napolitano duly signed it into law.

Berlusconi demanded this law not merely to extricate himself from the corruption trial in which he is accused along with Tessa Jowell's estranged husband, David Mills. The larger context, he claims, is that he has been the victim of a sustained campaign of judicial persecution by left-wing prosecutors and magistrates who are committed to bringing him down by legal devices, thereby frustrating the democratic will of the country. "Since I entered politics," he said, "I have been summoned to attend 2,502 court hearings" at a cost in lawyers' fees, he claimed, of €£174m.

"Mud has been thrown at me ... for 10 years, and all the cases have been disproved. I ask myself who will compensate me for the image of myself portrayed in the world's newspapers, not to mention the legal costs?"

"You have liberated me," he said to the senate after the crucial vote. "I will no longer be persecuted." There is still a risk that the law will be kicked into touch by the constitutional court, as happened in 2004. But, unless that happens, he's a free man.

Free to do what? This week also saw an emergency law on security voted on to the statute book, which enabled the government to order the army to demolish Gypsy camps. On Friday, the government enacted a state of emergency to tackle a surge in arrivals of illegal immigrants from North Africa. Suddenly, the government is acting with all the cockiness and unpredictability of its master.

The Prime Minister is sailing off on his summer holidays a happy man. Even his private life is looking up: last week a gossip magazine carried a soft-focus cover of Berlusconi hand in hand with his wife, Veronica, who says she plans to spend the whole holiday with her man – thus putting the gossip about an imminent divorce in its box.

At the age of 71, Berlusconi is the king in autumn. Yet there is nothing remotely autumnal about his performance in the 100 days since the last election– he's behaving as if he has just got behind the wheel of a new Ferrari. He has always had the knack of making ordinary Italians feel good about themselves. And now he has made up his mind to put that capital to constructive political use: he wants to be remembered for having got things done. But where is he going to take Italy next? It's going to be a hell of a ride.

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