The downfall of Berlusconi

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Are the plates shifting beneath Rome? Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Silvio Berlusconi, the longest-serving Italian prime minister since the Second World War?

Are the plates shifting beneath Rome? Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Silvio Berlusconi, the longest-serving Italian prime minister since the Second World War?

Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition is in turmoil. The government's disastrous showing in regional elections earlier this month has caused tensions between the coalition parties to erupt, leading to the withdrawal of two junior partners. Even if this crisis does not provoke an early election, the prognosis for the long-term survival of the Prime Minister and his Forza Italia movement looks bleak. Four years after storming to power, his record is dismal and the patience of the Italian electorate is wearing thin. It is alarm at the prospect of political annihilation when the country gives its verdict that lies behind his allies' decision to desert.

Why has Italy fallen out of love with the billionaire media magnate and his unique brand of political showmanship? The economy is the short answer. There is profound disappointment that in four years the centre-right has not been able to deliver growth. Most Italians who voted for Mr Berlusconi hailed him as a charismatic tycoon who could use his impressive business acumen to perform an economic miracle. Now they feel poorer than they did when they voted him in, and correctly dismiss his promises as hot air.

The economic reforms Italy is crying out for, on labour markets for example, lie untackled, while promised tax cuts have barely materialised. The embattled Prime Minister is promising more tax cuts to boost his flagging popularity, but everyone knows his hands are tied; the EU is threatening legal action over Italy's rising budget deficit. While the wheels of the economy spin in the sand, Mr Berlusconi seems to have spent most of his time astride the political stage on such projects as a devolution plan which could further impoverish the southern regions; and on securing his own immunity from judicial attack over his past business dealings.

Mr Berlusconi can boast about the political "stability" he has achieved by holding together his government for so long. But the price paid in the erosion of democratic principles, including freedom of the press, has been too high. That is why the present crisis is reassuring. Even a leader who enjoys almost complete domination of the media cannot guarantee his own political survival in the face of harsh economic reality.

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