Peter Popham: The tragedy of Berlusconi's legacy

He showed genius in thwarting and dodging the bureaucracy, but took scant interest in reforming it
Click to follow

"It normally takes a few weeks to exhaust the procedures necessary for forming a government," Associated Press reported yesterday, explaining why Romano Prodi, despite winning the Italian general election this week, was unlikely to start running the country until the second half of May.

Exhaust the procedures: an odd phrase, but it seemed to fit the bill. Prodi does not have to fulfil any more political conditions before he takes over. He has to have a majority in both houses, but that was confirmed yesterday. He has to report to the President of the Republic and be formally invested with his new office, along with his cabinet colleagues: the work of a morning.

He does not have to enter tortuous negotiations over forming a Grand Coalition, as proposed by Silvio Berlusconi, because, having a majority, however slim, he has already ruled that out. (And if he had not, one commentator suggested, his coalition would have imploded.)

Nonetheless, there are procedures to be exhausted before anything can happen, and exhausting them will also exhaust the new government before it has done a stroke of work, and the patiently waiting nation. "The long period of time" before a new executive can be formed, explained the office of the President, was "constitutionally obligatory".

There has been a lot of worried talk in the Italian media this week about a nation divided in two. Half the votes in the election went to the centre-right, half to the centre-left. The relatively affluent north voted one way, the centre and the south the other, more or less. Italy's historic division, fruit of its uniquely messy war, was between the Fascists and the Communists. Both extremes were banished from government after the war, but the enmity persisted, masked but not dissipated by the long, corrupt hegemony of the Christian Democrats.

A great deal of hostility, even deeper and more visceral than that between Tory and Labour, persists in Italy. With the post-Fascists in power with Berlusconi for the past five years, and the post-Communists now preparing to move into cabinet posts under Romano Prodi, the worried talk about division is all about that old enmity, which has now broken cover, becoming the substance of Italy's political discourse, not merely its sub-text.

Rather than a cause for wringing of hands, however, this is probably a healthy development. The long years of woolly, corrupt consensus politics are over- though the ex-democristiano Prodi seems to hanker for them, with his obsessive talk of "unifying the nation". Italy has now embraced not only the principle but also the practise of alternating governments of different hues, which by definition presupposes a lively and rebarbative opposition. Father Romano will have to put up with his sermons being heckled.

The division that really damages Italy is not right and left, or north and south, or rich and poor. It is the division between the Italy that works and the Italy that sits on its hands; the Italy that is passionately engaged in its destiny - and the Italy that is committed to "exhausting procedures". This week, both these Italies have been vividly on display. The Italy that works is a wonderful place. With its passion, its humanity, its spontaneity and vigour, it puts the rest of the Continent to shame.

Sunday was the first warm day of spring, it was also Palm Sunday and the first of two days of polling and as a result, the special Sunday mood - preserved in Italy despite vain calls to make it a shopping day like the other six - was intensified to an almost delirious degree. Families poured into church and out again, milled about on street corners and in coffee bars drinking cappuccinos and doing that old Italian thing of debating politics loud and long.

The mood was not so much dutiful as elated, as if Italians had got the franchise not six decades but six months ago and as if this was their first opportunity to exercise it. And confronted with an Italian ballot slip you can understand why. More than one foot wide, it's less a ballot slip than a box of chocolates: three types of Communist party, three or four varieties of Northern League, two Greens, two pensioners' parties, several types of democristiano, a women's party. There are four varieties of post-Fascist party, each more frightening than the one before. There is a party called Daisy (Margherita), which despite its name is quite important, a coalition called the Olive Tree (which incorporates the Daisy and is very important). There is a party called the Rose in the Fist, which despite the quaint name is one of the few genuinely modern parties in the country (and did rather well).

They may not read many newspapers, they may be suckers for the charms of Berlusconi, but the Italians love their politics the way they love their food and wine. Eighty-four per cent of them turned out to vote in this election.

The problem is what happens next. The ballots are counted like anywhere else in Europe, and despite the dark talk of brogli (stitch-ups) on both sides, the process seems fair and tolerably fast, the results are duly announced, a winner emerges. And then the other Italy takes over.

This is the Italy of the bureaucratic machinery, and it seems to live on a different planet from the rest of the country. To this Italy, it does not matter if the country is in economic crisis and in desperate need of firm measures: procedures must be exhausted before a government can take office. This is the same Italy which makes the simplest bureaucratic task a marathon of telephoning and queueing, which determines that it takes an hour to post a letter, which puts unnumbered hurdles before anyone thinking of starting a business.

Silvio Berlusconi's appeal to the electorate was founded on the fact that here was a man who had made an immense fortune and a glittering career in defiance of every obstacle the bureaucracy could put in his way.

If he broke the law repeatedly in the process, that was what it took. For every businessman who had battled and bamboozled the tax man and other agents of the state, Berlusconi was a hero and a role model.

The tragedy for Italy is that while Berlusconi showed genius in thwarting and dodging the bureaucracy, he took scant interest in reforming it. Prodi talks the reforming talk, but with his roots deep in the old political culture he shows no sign of knowing how the bureaucratic sclerosis is to be tackled.

So the two Italies stumble on, the Italy that is vital and brilliant, staggering under the weight of a bureaucracy it cannot escape and cannot find the resources to reform.

The man or woman who rises to that challenge will be Berlusconi's real successor.