Peter Popham: Sad fact is that Italians cannot conceive of life without him

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What sort of grip does the old man hold over his country? The outside world wrote Silvio Berlusconi off years ago, The Economist leading the charge with its "Unfit to govern" cover, the US embassy in Rome (we now know thanks to WikiLeaks) following up with its verdict of "feckless, vain and ineffective". But yesterday, the 74-year-old billionaire was basking in another improbable parliamentary victory.

To conclude that Mr Berlusconi has simply bought himself another lease of life would be to misunderstand the nature of his appeal. The awkward fact is that after 16 years at the centre of the nation's politics, Mr Berlusconi occupies such a huge space that it is difficult to conceive of life after him. Physical stature aside, everything about him is epic: his wealth, his business empire, his vanity, his weaknesses, his charm. His idea of uniting the two untouchables of Italian politics, the neo-Fascists and the Northern League secessionists, in coalition with a party cooked up by his advertising men was much derided, but bold. And it has endured better than any other contemporary Italian political arrangement.

Gianfranco Fini's trajectory illustrates the problem. A clever politician who led his extremists in from the fascist fringe, his career was predicated on Mr Berlusconi's patronage as he became the unlikely voice of the conservative conscience. But in trying to go it alone, he has been exposed as another political pygmy.

Mr Berlusconi's slim victory yesterday was in truth merely the latest stage in his slow dissolution. Even if he succeeds in tempting the ex-Christian Democrats into his coalition, he is unlikely to be able to stagger on for more than a few months. But his departure will not solve the malaise of Italian politics. The disappearance of the Socialists and Christian Democrats in a massive bribery scandal in 1994 was hailed as the beginning of a Second Republic. Instead, Mr Berlusconi marched in, and the Second Republic was stillborn.

The lessons of his long domination are that Italy has a crying need for fresh, bold, iconoclastic ideas – not the tired temporising of the present leaders.

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