For the man who has lorded it over Italian politics for two decades, this has been a nightmarish week. His attempt to unite his party in a vote of no confidence against the ruling coalition, of which it is a part, ended in a fiasco when senior colleagues refused to resign, and he was forced into a humiliating climb-down. A cross-party panel of senators met yesterday and recommended that he should be expelled from the Senate after his conviction for tax fraud.
The agony does not stop there: the Senate will debate the panel’s decision within three weeks, and vote whether or not to act on it. Even after his defenestration, Berlusconi will remain in the government, unless Prime Minister Enrico Letta and President Giorgio Napolitano decide to get him kicked out of that, too. Then it remains for him to serve his sentence for fraud: either house arrest or community service.
For a man of such supreme vanity and self-confidence, it is a true Via Dolorosa. We got a glimpse of his inner turmoil in his last television broadcast two weeks ago. His trademark roguish swagger has given way to self-pity verging on despair. However, it is not Berlusconi we should be sorry for but the country he misruled. At his peak his immense popularity and questionable but shrewd alliances with post-Fascists and northern secessionists allowed him to rule with greater stability than anyone since Mussolini. As President Napolitano often points out, fragile, short-lived administrations have been the bane of Italy for decades. Between 2002 and 2006 Berlusconi presided over the most enduring government in Italy’s postwar history.
In the hands of a man with his country’s future at heart, this would have been a golden opportunity to drive through important reforms, to challenge the vested interests that hold Italy to ransom in every sphere of life, to give a drastic shake-up to the justice and education systems, to crack down on tax evasion and tackle organised crime.
But Mr Berlusconi threw away those years, wasting immense amounts of parliamentary time crafting laws to keep himself out of the clutches of prosecutors, providing amnesties for tax evaders and abusive developers which merely encouraged them to offend again, getting favoured showgirls elected to parliament and even putting them in government, hobnobbing with fellow-spirits like Colonel Gaddafi and Vladimir Putin while precipitously lowering Italy’s prestige in the European Union.
Very occasionally we get a glimpse of what he might have achieved: the tidal barrier in the Venice lagoon is 75 per cent complete. This was a project over which politicians wrangled for 40 years before Berlusconi signed it off and got the enterprise moving, an achievement that would have been impossible without a stable government.
But – supposing it is ever finished – it will be a lonely monument. His other great infrastructure project, the world’s largest single-span suspension bridge across the Messina Straits to Sicily, languishes unbuilt and widely ridiculed. “Pharaonic” is the term most often applied to it, aptly for a man who long ago built a huge mausoleum for himself and his closest cronies in the grounds of his palace outside Milan.
Commentators have often prematurely ruled Berlusconi out of contention, but the fact that two daily papers – his most consistent supporters over the years – led yesterday’s editions with approving stories about Angelino Alfano, the senior member of Berlusconi’s party who this week refused to do his master’s bidding, leaves little room for doubt that Il Cavaliere’s day is done. Now Italy needs to put this man and his fatal charm behind it.