Peter Popham: Silvio wants the power and the glory

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It was a throwaway remark at the end of a press conference, but it is still resonating: Silvio Berlusconi wants to change Italy's system of government to a presidential one, like the French or American system.

Harmless enough, one might think. Today the Italian president is largely ceremonial. Nobody would claim that the Italian government is the gold standard for effectiveness. A commander-in-chief might turn the country round.

Trouble is, no one is in doubt about Berlusconi's preferred candidate for the job: himself.

It has long been an open secret that Berlusconi wants to end his days as president, but it was assumed that he would be satisfied with the ceremonial job.

The bid for "presidenzialismo" was quickly torpedoed by allies and adversaries alike. But it confirmed the fear that has been gnawing at the innards of many Italians these past 15 years: that the man they call "Il Cavaliere" will be satisfied with nothing less than dictatorial power.

And the uncomfortable fact is that this is the way he is heading, even without laying hands on the constitution. His coalition allies are far less troublesome than last time around. The reason, people say, is that they are all on his payroll. Such are the advantages of being a billionaire in power.

Meanwhile the opposition is in utter disarray, with centre-left politicians under investigation for suspected corruption up and down the country.

Then at the weekend, a sudden ray of hope. Might Berlusconi prefer instead to spend his sunset years in a tropical paradise, like his late, disgraced patron, Bettino Craxi?

At a cosy gathering of journalists in his Roman flat, Berlusconi denounced the Italian investigators' penchant for bugging telephones, declaring: "If certain phone calls of mine are bugged, I would move abroad." Could he possibly be serious?

A lunar-tic scheme

If he was, he might be induced to go one step further and become the first politician on the moon. An Italian syndicate, Team Italia, is in competition for Google's prize of $30m for the first private company to get a lunar exploration vehicle to the moon and back. Luxury space tourism and orbiting hotels are the next step. If the prime minister would volunteer to step aboard, he could do his country a real service.

Zen response to disaster

How to cope with disaster? The Tibetan monks have their own approach. The meditation hall of an important Buddhist monastery near Pisa has been reduced to cinders in a disastrous electrical fire, with texts, images and altar all gone. Dagri Rinpoche, a senior lama, told the monks simply: "Every great monastery has had great problems."