From bad to worse as grip on nation slips further out of Berlusconi’s hands
By Paola Totaro
Sydney Morning Herald
They say bad things come in threes and for Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s Prime Minister, the week brought the full quota of political misfortune.
On Monday Mr Berlusconi, 74, once seen as untouchable and invincible, witnessed Italy’s regional governments, including his home city of Milan, fall to a phalanx of communist mayors, some of them former lawyers and anti-corruption prosecutors – the very types he most hates.
Just 24 hours later, amid TV pictures of 50,000 people celebrating the ”liberation of Milan” in Piazza Duomo, a trio of inscrutable women judges listened to the nation’s most expensive lawyers begin Mr Berlusconi’s defence against accusations of paid sex with an under-age nightclub dancer.
The ink on that morning’s front pages was barely dry when the country’s Appeals Court landed what some believe will turn out to be the knockout hit, announcing a controversial referendum on nuclear power, water privatisation and the so-called legitimate impediment law – originally planned for the same weekend as the regional polls – would go ahead on June 12 and 13.
Mr Berlusconi’s government, a powerful advocate of the atomic industry, had planned to embark on a big new building program from 2014 with the aim of producing 25 per cent of the country’s electricity needs with atomic energy by 2030. Italy has had a ban on any industry expansion since 1987, when the electorate, deeply suspicious of nuclear power after Chernobyl, voted for a moratorium. Fearful of a similar backlash in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Mr Berlusconi has waged an unstinting battle against the plebiscite, even offering a suspension of his nuclear plans in April in an effort to ride out controversy.
However, atomic power may well turn out to be the least of Mr Berlusconi’s problems because the referendum will also ask Italians to vote on another, explosive issue: whether the Prime Minister – now on trial for fraud as well as sex crimes – should be allowed to boycott court for 18 months so he can concentrate solely on his political responsibilities. In other words, does his leadership constitute a ”legitimate impediment” to his attendance at court. Il Cavaliere himself, ever defiant, insists that no matter what happened at regional polls, ”the government will forge on”.
In court this week his lawyers listed 16 reasons why the trial should not continue in Milan but in a parliamentary tribunal. Mr Berlusconi, they argue, was ”convinced” that Ruby, the Moroccan showgirl, was the niece of the then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, when he made his phone call to have her freed from police custody.
Tactics to stall and delay – and push the case into a constitutional court – could buy Berlusconi precious time.
But history has shown that Milan has often been a litmus test for Italy’s mood, signalling political unrest and a desire for change well before the rest of the country.
Problematic for the future is that the Northern League, the government’s coalition partner, copped a bruising, too.
The League leader, Umberto Bossi, has increasingly distanced himself from Mr Berlusconi this year although his party’s rhetoric, combining a mix of populist, region-centric slogans with intolerance of Islam, formed a prominent plank of the right’s losing campaign for Milan.
For many in the Northern League, poor results in the first round of the vote suggested that continuing ties with Mr Berlusconi were likely to spell doom. In the second round last weekend, the key city of Novara was lost, cementing anxiety and heralding poisonous times between the partners.
And so it is that the leader lauded as Italy’s most popular postwar prime minister, the maverick, anti-bureaucracy, self-made, couldn’t-give-a-damn-for-the-establishment billionaire who promised to drag the nation out of the banana-republic quagmire it found itself in the 1980s, has himself become a figure of tragi-comedy the world over. Italians, grappling with hefty public debt and rising unemployment, find themselves having to spend an estimated extra €300 million ($407 million) of public funds on a plebiscite that should have sent them to the polling booth just once last month.
For Silvio Berlusconi, bad things might not stop at three.