Peter Popham: Who would be prime minister of Italy?

The Vatican remains a power in the land, the maker and breaker of governments

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He's not the most obvious target of charity, but spare a thought for Italy's prime minister and richest person, Silvio Berlusconi.

He's not the most obvious target of charity, but spare a thought for Italy's prime minister and richest person, Silvio Berlusconi.

Twice this month the most powerful leaders in the world have poured into his capital, including the rulers of all his major European allies, the rest of the EU, and past and present presidents of the United States.

Yet on neither occasion were they here to see him: he was just another face in the St Peter's crowd, another important person to be perfunctorily saluted before the great and the good climbed back into their jets and headed home. They were in Rome to bend the knee not to the Italian state but the micro kingdom with which Italy shares the Eternal City. As on many occasions before, the funeral of one pope and the enthronement, yesterday, of the next, made it uncomfortably clear to Italians how great a sway the papacy still exerts, and how relatively unimportant by comparison are Italy's secular rulers.

If that weren't enough, in the midst of all the Vatican hoopla, the memorial masses for John Paul II, the Conclave, the smoke signals, Berlusconi's government collapsed. Last year it became the longest-running Italian government since the end of the Second World War: not a feat of longevity to compare with the record of many other countries, but an achievement for Berlusconi, nonetheless, proof perhaps that Italy had finally extracted itself from its era of feeble coalitions, usually led by the Christian Democrats but always prone to fall apart like a poorly constructed block of flats when one minor coalition ally pulled out.

Berlusconi's boast since 2001 has been that, thanks to him, Italy has turned the corner. He was installed in power at the head of the "House of Liberties" coalition with a large parliamentary majority and, as he never tired of saying, he intended to serve the full five years. So when his deputy prime minister, Mario Follini, leader of a Christian Democratic faction in the coalition, announced that he was pulling his three ministers out of the government, Berlusconi was minded to make light of it. Follini promised to continue supporting the government from outside, so the coalition's parliamentary majority was unaffected. The people had elected him to serve out five years and that was what he would do.

The answer to that was the Italian constitution: if part of your coalition government falls away, regardless of the arithmetical consequences, the prime minister must resign - and hope that the president asks him to form a new government and start again. It is a ritual of humiliation that the weak, much put-upon Italian prime minister must undergo. Berlusconi didn't fancy it. Everybody told him he had no choice, but he tried to wriggle out of it: after keeping President Ciampi waiting for hours, and obliging him to cancel his plans for the weekend, Berlusconi flew off to his villa in Sardinia, determined to brazen the crisis out. Who was boss, after all?

Not you, came the answer in the succeeding days. By Wednesday a cornered, surly media billionaire had discovered that the rules also applied eventually to himself, and trudged into the Quirinale, the presidential palace that was formerly the home of the popes, to bend the knee to his boss. The day after the Church got its new chief, Italy lost its prime minister. On Saturday, in a ceremony notable for its chilliness, Berlusconi was sworn in again.

Yesterday he was once more just another cheering face in the crowd, as Pope Benedict XVI swept around St Peter's Square in his Popemobile. And the Italians were left mulling the fact that, a century and a half after Rome became for the first time ever capital of a unitary Italian state, the Pope still has all the best tunes. With the election of the second foreign pope in a row, Italians are wondering if their grip on the throne of St Peter has gone for good. Yet the grip of the church on the Italian state seems as strong as ever.

It is 135 years since Garibaldi confiscated the last of the church's earthly domains, confined the Vatican to the far side of the Tiber, and began the task of turning Italy into a real nation. But the job was never finished. Despite the tricolor, the ever-more homogenised language and culture and the efforts of Berlusconi, Italy remains a nation riven by collective schizophrenia.

The Italian state gave the Vatican the elbow, but the victory was a pyrrhic one. The Church continues to dog the footsteps of Italy's notional rulers. To give a single example, last year a fiercely conservative law on artificial human fertilisation was passed, backed by the Church. The Church is doing its utmost to sway a referendum to be held in June on the same question.

Church congregations are dwindling in Italy, though not as dramatically as elsewhere in Europe; church teaching on issues such as birth control and abortion is widely ignored by Italian Catholics. But at the political level, the Vatican remains a power in the land, the maker and breaker of governments. The man who pulled Berlusconi's government down was a democristiano. If Berlusconi loses next year, the winner is likely to be Romano Prodi, another devout ex-Christian Democrat.

The idea of a truly independent figure like Spain's Zapatero coming to power in Italy and passing a law allowing gays to marry is the stuff of fantasy. The Pope may, as Stalin pointed out, have no legions. But in Italy he has no need of them.

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