The resignation of Italy's technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti and the threatened return of Silvio Berlusconi have rightly sent shockwaves across the eurozone and beyond. If Mr Monti's arrival in power a year ago with his government of non-politicians, tasked to save the Italians from themselves, was like the appearance of the deus ex machina in a Greek tragedy, the return of the billionaire media mogul, who explicitly ruled himself out of contention only weeks ago, is like something from the imagination of Bram Stoker.
This is not the same Mr Berlusconi who was drummed out of office last year. Internal divisions, his conviction for tax fraud and his ongoing trial on charges of having sex with a minor have shredded his party's support, which in the most recent poll stood at only 13 per cent. The centre-left Democratic Party is riding high, with ratings more than twice that. But as everyone knows, Mr Berlusconi is a formidable campaigner, no more so than with his back to the wall. With his immense financial, organisational and media resources, and his total lack of scruple in using them, it is far too soon to rule out a comeback.
His hand is strengthened by the fact that, while Mr Monti has made significant progress in hacking away at the vested interests that have hobbled Italy's economic performance throughout the Berlusconi years, his work is only half done. And for tens of millions of Italians, many of them historic Berlusconi supporters, so far only the downside of his austerity programme is visible.
This year, Italy is likely to record negative growth of more than 2 per cent; unemployment has risen above 11 per cent. Mr Monti has done much to restore the faith in Italy of Berlin and Brussels, but the benefits of his assault on Italy's colossal debt have been intangible to most, and the goodwill he enjoyed a year ago has shrivelled away.
Despite Mr Monti's freedom from the lobbies that hold parties of both right and left hostage, his government has struggled to reform institutions and professions which have long contributed to Italy's chronic weakness. He has overseen an unpopular, long overdue reform of pensions for which no previous government had the stomach; but the unions succeeded in rebuffing his efforts to open up the heavily protected labour market. And the snail-like bureaucracy of the legal system remains a national disgrace, with Italy's inability to deliver civil justice in good time a severe deterrent to foreign investment.
Mr Berlusconi's return took Italy entirely by surprise. But Mr Monti's time in charge, scheduled to end in March, which involved the suspension of normal parliamentary democracy, was always likely to end badly. Whichever coalition won the March election was going to find it immensely difficult to stick to Mr Monti's tough and unattractive, if necessary, course. Now with Mr Berlusconi, the great communicator, back in the fight, the dangers of a race to the populist bottom are greatly enhanced.
The outside world continues to find it as bemusing as it is depressing that a man so mired in legal controversy, so clownishly unpredictable on the international stage, so lacking in the gravitas of a national leader, should time after time win the support of Italian voters. His unique achievement has been his ability to corral northern racists, central and southern post-Fascists and millions of ordinary Italian Catholics scared of the future into a single political dispensation. He may even succeed in pulling it off once more – but this time the consequences for his country, and the rest of Europe, could really be dire.
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