Milan is reclaiming its place as "the moral capital of Italy" and you can feel the pride of its people rise as the dark shadows of the past 15 years slowly recede. Silvio Berlusconi is a Milan boy born and bred, and his thrusting ambitions have defined the city for much of the past half century. But as his candidate faces a humiliating defeat in the run-off mayoral election today, for the first time in many years Il Cavaliere is no longer the centre of the story. Milan is.
That's not how this script was supposed to play. Borne aloft by his usual gaseous self-confidence, Berlusconi had no hesitation in shoving the incumbent Letizia Moratti, a former education minister in his government, to one side and declaring the mayoral election for his home town a plebiscite on himself. It's a gambit that has worked many times before, why not now?
Berlusconi's weekly appearances at the Tribunale di Milano, the city's Fascist-era court building, to contest charges of consorting with under-age prostitutes and financial crimes, became a political cabaret, a theatre of the absurd which saw Italy's lovable rogue of a Prime Minister declare that he was barred from doing his job by these unelected "communist" judges: a cancer on society, he called them, terrorists in lawyer's robes. Posters went up around town comparing the city's prosecutors to the Red Brigades, the ultra-left terrorists who cut a bloody swathe through Italy 30 years ago.
But for once the fanciful rhetoric didn't work. Prosecutors may be arrogant and sometimes wrong but they cannot be compared to terrorists. And anyway, this was an election about Milan, not about the premier's alleged misdemeanours. Italy's second biggest city, its financial and industrial heart, staggering under problems of every sort from air pollution to housing shortages to the degradation of the suburbs, did not deserve to be shuffled out of the picture.
When, on the eve of the election, the lady-like but charisma-free incumbent descended to the most ignoble Berlusconi tactics in an election debate with her centre-left rival, Giuseppe Pisapia, using her final question – to which he was barred from responding – to claim untruthfully that he had been convicted of a serious crime, the city revolted and Moratti paid the price. Pisapia, a communist lawyer, trounced her in the first round.
Now the man who turned the poll into a test of his personal popularity is running for cover. He disappeared from view for a full week after that defeat. He emerged to break the election rules by giving a party political broadcast on five television channels simultaneously – the networks were subsquently heavily fined – and then, pathetically, to tell every G8 leader who would listen, including Barrack Obama, how Italy was really ruled by a cabal of communist judges, out to get him. Now he says the Milan result is unimportant – he will continue as Prime Minister no matter what. That's doubtless true. But Milan is slipping through his fingers.
Why Milan fancies itself as the new Berlin
Thanks to Design Week and the Fashion Weeks, Milan has managed to hold on to its reputation as a cool town throughout the Berlusconi years. That always struck me as a triumph of image over reality. Sure, Milan is home to Armani and the rest, but beyond the magic labyrinth of the centre there is ring after concentric ring of gloomy Austro-Hungarian apartment buildings, redundant factories, post-war estates, and the glamour is hard to locate.
But if Giuseppe Pisapia becomes the city's mayor today, something is going to change. You can feel it in the air already. His political home may be the far-left, but as the son of one Italy's best-known lawyers, and a successful lawyer himself, he has forged easy links with what they call, without irony, "la buona borghesia", "the good bourgeoisie" of the city: the industrialists who made their money honestly and for whom the reign of King Silvio has long been a grave embarrassment.
The notion of civic pride and civic duty is not dead here; when Pisapia says his model for Milan is Berlin, the twice-blighted city which has become one of the world's great green pioneers, the good burgers sniff the air and think it may be the moment to emerge from their redoubts and do something. Suddenly Milan's 2015 World Fair, which was on track to become a bonanza for property speculators and little else, starts to look interesting.
Boat people sink the Northern League
As if all this wasn't enough good news, today's poll also promises the beginning of the end for Umberto Bossi and his crew. The Northern League, the racist, secessionist rabble-rousers whose success in tapping the meanness and resentment of Italy's wealthy north has been the other great political success story of the past two decades, were quite as badly battered as Berlusconi in the first round of the mayoral election. That was a pleasing but also a curious result: with paranoia about African migrants pouring in from Libya and elsewhere running high, one would have expected Bossi to cash in.
But it would seem that the contradictions of power have finally become too glaring even for the League's supporters. Bossi has been Berlusconi's most loyal ally since 2001, but despite that, neither of his hottest tickets, devolution and an end to migration, has yet come to pass. The League has been reduced to plastering Milan with posters bawling "STOP IMMIGRATI" – "STOP IMMGRANTS" – but when the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, himself a leader of the League, is helpless to bring the arrivals of boat people under control, the disparity between word and deed becomes unsustainable.