Leading article: If Mr Berlusconi loses this election, Italy should not mourn

His control and abuse of the media, his financial corruption and brazen evasion of justice have done grave damage

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Tomorrow marks the first day of voting in the Italian general election. And all the signs are that power is slipping away from Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's leader for the past five years. The Italian Prime Minister has sounded increasingly desperate in recent weeks. Each day conspiracy theories and offensive remarks come pouring from the mouth of the man known as "Il Cavaliere". Never the most polished of politicians, Berlusconi has morphed into the very antithesis of a statesman. The most recent opinion polls suggest his Forza Italia party will lose, although one can never really be sure in Italian politics. But if the Berlusconi era does come to an end next week, the Italian people should not mourn its passing.

Perhaps Mr Berlusconi's one credible pitch last time he ran for power was that, thanks to his background in business, he was well placed to jump-start the Italian economy. He portrayed himself as someone with the will to push through labour market reforms and break up inefficient state monopolies. Yet Mr Berlusconi has manifestly failed to deliver on those promises. The result is an economy that has barely grown.

The state's finances are in an equally poor state. The budget deficit is ballooning and Italy's public debt remains the third largest in the world. As for Italy's notorious bureaucracy, it has not been rolled back one centimetre. And although civil servants have been spending taxpayers' money as liberally as ever, there is somehow not enough money to care properly for the country's priceless classical and renaissance heritage. The budget of the culture ministry has been slashed in the past five years.

Mr Berlusconi's supporters point out that by leading the longest-serving Italian government since the war he has, at the very least, delivered some much-needed stability to Italian politics. But his longevity is surely more a reflection of the historical deficiencies of Italian politicians than Mr Berlusconi's merits as Prime Minister.

The fact that he has lasted this long is also, in large part, testament to his ability to evade justice. Mr Berlusconi's business record was always questionable. He came to office with charges of money laundering, bribing judges and false accounting hanging over him. And the links of his party to the Mafia are well documented. One of Mr Berlusconi's close associates, Marcello Dell'Utri, is appealing against a nine-year sentence for complicity with organised crime. In office he has done nothing to redeem himself of past sins. Mr Berlusconi has busied himself passing laws to diminish the likelihood of him being successfully prosecuted. And - as many feared five years ago - he has used his vast media empire irresponsibly. His control of 90 per cent of Italy's television has been used to further his own political ends.

Mr Berlusconi's claim that all the outstanding legal charges against him are politically motivated is risible. His alleged bribing of David Mills is yet one more reminder of Mr Berlusconi's unfitness for office. It is no overstatement to say that Mr Berlusconi's tenure in office has been corrosive to Italian democracy. His control and abuse of the media, his financial corruption and his brazen evasion of justice have done grave damage to Italian public life.

Unfortunately, the opposition to Mr Berlusconi offers scant hope of a new start for the country. The alliance led by the former prime minister and head of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi, is far from inspiring. The unwieldy coalition of communists and centre-leftists hints at a return to political stasis. Italy will not become a paradise if the Berlusconi era comes to an end. The country will continue to be saddled with problems. But one thing is certain: Italy would be better off without "Il Cavaliere".

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