Peter Popham: The last days of Silvio Berlusconi

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The Independent Online

Correspondents in Italy are dusting off the black armbands: we may have little more than one more week left in which to kick Silvio Berlusconi around.

As predicted in this space back in August, the Italian prime minister’s former right-hand man, the post-Fascist leader Gianfranco Fini, who has been feuding with his old chief for most of the year, is now poised to plunge in the dagger.

Though Fini himself, tall, grim and bony, with something of the undertaker’s air, has only a few dozen MPs loyal to his new party, he claims to have amassed a slim majority of those on the centre-right who are willing to give the 74-year old billionaire the coup de grâce at the culmination of a confidence debate on Tuesday week.

Whatever his failings as a national leader – “feckless, vain and ineffective” was the tart summation of US deputy mission chief in Rome, Elizabeth Dibble, revealed by Wikileaks, and he has presided for years over a nation that appears ever more becalmed and sclerotic – it would be dishonest not to admit that he will be sorely missed by journalists.

Which other leader of a major ally would have the sangfroid to fall asleep during a tête-à-tête with the US ambassador? Or to desert the state visit of the King of Jordan in favour of partying with his chum Mr Putin at the latter’s birthday bash? To have one of Western Europe’s major democracies ruled by a man who is essentially a feudal lord, surrounded by pouting lovelies and dodgy businessmen, is undoubtedly problematic for Italy, but it makes the reporter’s task more entertaining.

And there remains the stubborn fact that, alone of Italy’s top politicians, Berlusconi still has his finger uncannily on the nation's pulse. If he is losing popularity now, it is for the same reason that Gordon Brown was defenestrated and Brian Cowen is heading for the chop: a major economic slump will kill off any political career. But his political instinct remains as sound as ever.

In the leaked cables, the US’s main concern is Berlusconi’s close friendship with Putin, and the strategic alliance based on gas imports which resulted from it. But those revelations do him no harm at home: to drag Italy out from the shadow of the US, which exercised a de facto veto over the make-up of its coalition governments during the Cold War, warms the cockles of Italian hearts on both left and right. Likewise for a country with paltry energy resources which slammed the door on the nuclear option in a referendum 23 years ago, to develop new supply routes from Russia and Libya makes excellent sense.

Even falling asleep during an ambassadorial diatribe now looks not merely human, but politically astute. As if he had known a leak was in the offing.

A final trial might force him into exile

So if Berlusconi goes, what next? Political handovers are never slick in Italy: the lightning speed with which David Cameron replaced Brown was watched with frank disbelief here. Months of consultation, ceremony and procedure are needed for one premier to take the place of another, even when an election result is clear cut.

Meanwhile the Euro crisis is bearing down on Italy – which is why a columnist in Corriere della Sera yesterday appealed to Berlusconi to emerge from his bunker and offer to head an emergency administration which would include Fini and set itself a strictly limited series of objectives to get the country through the next few months.

It is very unlikely to happen, however, for one simple reason: Fini, despite years of compliance with Berlusconi’s various legal wheezes for keeping out of the clutches of prosecutors, has vowed not to let him get away with any more. In the absence of a new provision guaranteeing immunity, Berlusconi will almost certainly find himself on the wrong end of another criminal prosecution very soon. And that is something he will not accept. If that were the price of staying in power, my guess is that he would prefer to chuck in the towel and go into exile – in the footsteps of his great patron Bettino Craxi, who fled corruption charges to live out his sunset years in Tunisia.

I can think of a better setting for Kafka’s work

Having spent several hours in Milan’s appalling Tribunale last week, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to steer clear of it. Berlusconi has always been convinced, with good reason, that the ranks of Milan’s prosecutors were stuffed with his sworn enemies.

On his last appearance in court here he delivered a furious denunciation of the proceedings before storming out. Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial was set in Rome’s Palazzo di Giustizia, a phantasmagoric, hyper-decorated late 19th century building on the Tiber. But Milan’s Fascist-era equivalent would have been more in keeping with the book’s sinister mood: a giant stony oblong which inside is a maddening labyrinth of stairs and annexes and court rooms, where supplicants in cases which have been underway for years huddle on benches lining long blank corridors.

p.popham@independent.co.uk

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