Peter Popham: Will Fini finish off Berlusconi?

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The Independent Online

Italian politics is like English football: once upon a time there was an interlude between the seasons when other things and people could get their day in the sun, the politicians and the footballers could put their feet up for a couple of weeks and all of us could enjoy a welcome break. That's all gone now. It's politics and football all the time. There is no let-up.

Yet Italians continue to insist, with the backing of the law, that August is a dead month. So the cities empty out, all the shops close and the only people tramping the streets are the left-behind oldsters and disorientated-looking immigrants.

One result of these conflicting tendencies is daily photographs in the Italian dailies of a tall, lean, somewhat disagreeable-looking man in sunglasses wearing swimming trunks and a T-shirt. He has his mobile phone in one hand and his small daughter's plastic bucket in the other as he plods across the sands of Ansedonia in Tuscany.

Gianfranco Fini, the post-fascist leader and the second most powerful man in Italy, is on holiday like everyone else. But in between building sand castles and applying plasters to the injury incurred to his right foot while playing with little Carolina, he is fighting for his political future. His fight to the death with Silvio Berlusconi is approaching its climax.

In 1994 Mr Fini became the first neo-fascist to enter an Italian government since the downfall of Mussolini. He did so as a close ally of Silvio Berlusconi, and the two have been politically inseparable ever since. Yet it was always a marriage of convenience between two strikingly different personalities: Fini the dry, cheerless, chain-smoking antithesis to the man they call Il Cavaliere. This spring they broke up in spectacular fashion at a convention of their unified party, the People of Freedom. Earlier this month, Fini's MPs came close to defeating Berlusconi in a vote of confidence.

Fini has come a long way since he gave his last Roman salute: repudiating Mussolini and most of what he stood for, especially his anti-Semitism, and steadily and rather remarkably re-branding himself as a liberal centrist. Berlusconi makes a habit of eating those who cross him for breakfast: one opponent after another has dropped through his trap door. Fini, as canny as he is dour, has outlasted them all. If he can survive this vacation he may yet bring the era of Berlusconi to a close.

Why shepherds are flocking to the airport

Sardinia has two very different faces, the luxurious bits of the coast with the Berlusconi villa, the Billionaire's Club and the throng of obscenely large and lavish motor yachts littering the marinas; and the dry, dusty, sparsely-populated interior where the makers of Spaghetti Westerns had no difficulty finding locations that looked exactly like Kansas.

This week the two Sardinias clashed violently at Olbia's airport when 2,000 Sardinian shepherds protesting at the destruction of their livelihood blocked arrivals and departures for several hours. Some of them made it on to the runway before riot police drove them back; others in the departures hall found themselves on the receiving end of the fury of frustrated holiday-makers.

There are still 18,000 shepherds in Sardinia, but more and more cheese and meat is imported from countries with lower costs and today they earn a pittance of what their parents could make. "My grandfather, 30 years ago, had 300 sheep, like me, and he was able to pay for three helpers," Salvatore Pessis told La Repubblica. "He put his children through school, and one of them became a doctor. I can only take on one seasonal worker, and this year I haven't managed to save a cent."

Italy's conversion from an agricultural to a post-agricultural economy has been pursued silently and with no fanfares: only a close scrutiny of the labels of olive oil, salami and cheese reveals the extent to which the excellence that we identify with Italy has moved abroad. And the human price is colossal.

The mystery of the summer dog suicides

The clinking of ice in tall glasses, the chattering of cicadas, the hissing of sprinklers ... Italy is nice in the summer if you are out in the country. But the sounds of the emptied-out cities are less comforting: the wailing of car and house alarms, reminding one that this is the best time of the year for burglars; and the howling of the dogs.

The fact that thousands of Italian families leave their pets to mope around at home while they go on holiday has been a scandal for years. The problem is said to be in decline, with only 7,000 dogs left behind today compared to 9,000 three years ago, but that is still a lot of miserable animals.

This year concern at the problem flared up again on account of the new phenomenon of alleged dog suicides: two temporarily abandoned dogs, one in Rome and one in Bolzano in the far north, were apparently so distraught at being left alone for weeks on end that they hurled themselves to their deaths from the balconies of their masters' apartments.

Can a dog commit suicide? Does a dog have Buddha nature, as the Zen masters of old used to ask? I have only one observation to contribute: our cat twice hurled herself from the balcony of our second-floor flat in Rome while we were (very briefly) away, the second time breaking her leg. But that wasn't suicide, that was sex, or rather the lack of it.

p.popham@independent.co.uk

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