Silvio Berlusconi: A leader who has eroded Italian democracy

The reign of il Cavaliere hangs in the balance. The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, faces a vote of no confidence in the Italian Senate and lower house today. The vote has been prompted by the defection of Mr Berlusconi's one-time ally, Gianfranco Fini, from the governing centre-right coalition.

If the no-confidence vote is passed, it could prompt new national elections. Though Mr Berlusconi won a strong personal mandate at the last poll in 2008, his personal approval ratings have now fallen to around 30 per cent. Many sense that the media magnate's 16-year domination of Italian politics could be coming to an end.

Mr Berlusconi's great achievement has been to unite the Italian right and to impose some stability on the nation's politics. In the context of a post-war Italian pattern in which governments would collapse almost as soon as they were formed, that is not to be dismissed.

But stability has come at an unacceptable price. Mr Berlusconi is most famous around the world for his off-colour jokes on the international stage, such as his repeated references to Barack Obama's "tan", or his suggestion in 2003 that a German MEP should play a concentration camp guard in a new film.

Yet to regard Mr Berlusconi as a clown with a highly dubious sense of humour would be a mistake. His rule has been an erosion of Italian democracy. Mr Berlusconi should never have been allowed to run for office without giving up control of his Mediaset empire. To have the same individual who owns Italy's private TV channels as head of the government has been a disastrous concentration of power.

When he entered politics in 1994, Mr Berlusconi's private wealth was reassuring to many Italians because they believed he had less incentive to be financially corrupt. But that has not stopped him exploiting his power in an entirely self-interested fashion. He has attempted to change the law specifically to allow him to avoid criminal prosecution for past suspect business dealings.

And his policies have been damaging too – from the persecution of Roma, to his disgraceful pact with Muammar Gaddafi's Libya to stem the flow of immigration from North Africa, to his close relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin. And despite his political dominance, Mr Berlusconi failed to push through the structural reforms of the Italian economy that he continuously promised. Chronic challenges over health care and pensions have been ducked.

More recently, revelations of Mr Berlusconi's sex parties with prostitutes have exposed the man who preached family values as a hypocrite. Even Italians, traditionally indulgent of their leaders' colourful private lives, have begun to turn away from him in disgust.

Mr Berlusconi has tried to use the eurozone crisis as a shield, telling the Senate yesterday that new elections could destabilise the markets and spark an Italian sovereign debt crisis. But if Mr Berlusconi is so essential to market confidence in Italy, the country must be in a worse state than anyone has yet grasped.

It would be foolish to write him off, even if he loses today's vote. Mr Berlusconi remains very popular among some sections of Italian society. And he might yet persuade the President, Giorgio Napolitano, to allow him an opportunity to attempt to form a new administration without new elections.

But the bottom line is that whatever benefits Mr Berlusconi once brought to Italy, they were long ago overtaken by the damage he inflicted. It would be much better for Italy – and for Europe – if il Cavaliere were to ride off into the sunset.