Peter Popham: Neither of these men is worthy to lead Italy

Italy needs root and branch reform. Yet neither Berlusconi nor Prodi is interested

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At one point in Monday night's television debate between Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi, the man challenging Berlusconi to be prime minister of Italy asked how a particular reform would be financed. The media baron replied: "I'll explain to you later in private."

These debates were meant to introduce a breath of freezing cold Anglo-Saxon air into the cosy salons and television shouting matches where Italian political discourse is normally conducted. The set is ivory coloured, the tables of plexiglass, the chairs of cream leather and aluminium, the whole thing has a slightly science fiction quality as if the candidates have been kidnapped by aliens and taken to another planet for interrogation. More bizarre for Italy, interrupting is banned. Italians find this makes for extremely boring debates. Interrupting and shouting the other man down is what political debate in Italy is all about.

But if the debates were intended to get the candidates to talk soberly about real issues, they have failed. Insults they have produced aplenty. Incomprehensible streams of figures. Expressions of anger and disdain. Airy-fairy waffle about happiness and unity. But realistic talk about real policy plans? Dream on. That happens in private afterwards, as Berlusconi intimated. It was a telling moment. The Italian political system is still, to an amazing degree, a private conversation among elites.

A few months before the election campaign began, Berlusconi announced a radical revision of the Italian voting system, scrapping the modified first-past-the-post system that was supposed to address Italy's chronic problem of weak government, and going back to a version of the discredited proportional representation system. If they get into power, the centre-left will scrap the Berlusconi law. I know that because a very important man told me. But you could scour all 281 closely printed pages of their manifesto and find no reference to this major and bold intention.

Another late, appalling act of the Berlusconi government was the last of a long line of laws ad personam designed to save the media mogul from justice. This one sliced in half the "prescription" time - the statute of limitations - for white-collar criminal offences. Italy is one of very few countries which sets a stopwatch running once a trial begins and after a fixed number of years calls the whole affair off, "exterminating", as they say, the crime. It is a pernicious rule. But Berlusconi made it a whole lot worse.

The law that halves the statute of limitations is going down the lavatory, too: the same important chap gave me his word of honour. It's the sort of thing that one would expect to find stamped in huge capitals on the cover of the coalition's manifesto, their proudest boast. Instead, like the voting initiative, it is nowhere to be found. Strong medicine, too strong for the common folk to swallow.

The second and final confrontation between the billionaire and the former president of the European Commission before the election next Sunday and Monday excited, in the breast of this foreigner at least, an enormous sense of pity for Italy: a country of such natural and human wealth, such beauty and history, forced to choose between two such men to lead it, and expected to swallow such piffle in the process.

One of the two men would have been in disgrace and behind bars long ago if Italy had a remotely serviceable justice system. When he fell from power the first time in 1994 with the desertion of the Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, after seven months in office, the accusations of bribery and corruption against Berlusconi were already piling up, and if justice had been allowed to take its course it is probable that some of the charges against him would have led to a criminal sentence. That would have put a full stop to what, at that point, was a short and ignoble political career. Instead, when the centre-left got into power they treated him - in the old elitist way, talking sotto voce among themselves - as a partner in power, and with his ready agreement enacted a justice reform bill which had the effect of lengthening trials, making it all but certain that Berlusconi's crimes would be "exterminated", and that he would live to fight another day. As he did.

The other contender for power, Romano Prodi, is set up to be everything Berlusconi is not: kindly, gentle, possessed of high moral values - a tubby parish priest, as he is often depicted in cartoons. His appeal to the electorate is that he is a competent manager and seems to be harmless - but at this point in Italy's history, can that be enough?

During last night's debate Berlusconi claimed, among many other things, that during his five years in power he had set the universities to rights, destroying the corrupt baronies that have a lock on university appointments and turning them into temples of meritocracy. It's not true: Italy's universities are in a dreadful state. But at least Berlusconi has got as far as identifying a real problem. During this election campaign others in his coalition have called for an assault on the closed-shop professional bodies that make it incredibly difficult for the young to break into the Italian jobs market. In five years nothing of the sort has been attempted, but again the centre-right acknowledge that these are among the country's problems.

No such talk is heard from Prodi or his allies; that would be hitting far too close to home, shitting in the nest and no mistake. Despite its pretensions to being a force for reform, the centre-left is the voice of the status quo, of which this comfortable professor is a perfect symbol.

There is an incontrovertible logic to the centre-left coalition: only by sticking together do these 13 parties, post-democristiano, post-communist, anti-clerical and more, have a hope of winning. But their internal contradictions make those within the British Labour Party look like a lover's tiff. They agree on practically nothing, except that Berlusconi Must Go. One of the moments during the debate when Berlusconi hit home was when he described Prodi (in a phrase used by Lenin) as a "useful idiot". With his airy calls for national unity, for happiness, for goodness, Romano Prodi leaves all the sacred cows well alone.

Italy needs root-and-branch reform of education, justice, the professions, the civil service, the banking system, if it is to begin to meet the challenges of the modern world. Yet neither candidate is interested. Mr Berlusconi used his final appeal to the camera to promise the abolition of council tax on houses - an idea not mentioned in the campaign so far, and which would at a stroke rob Italy's local councils of their main source of funding. He could not be serious. But there is a sucker born every minute, and some have not yet decided which way to vote.

p.popham@independent.co.uk

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