Thursday, February 09, 2006

On With the (Berlusconi) Show

Italy's formal campaign season starts on Saturday in advance of a general election scheduled for 9 April.

In case you don't know what that means, the dominant ingredient will be all Berlusconi, all the time. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of the more outlandish figures of world politics, vowed to a priest on television that he would not have sex for the rest of the campaign, and that's just one of many characteristically bizarre elements of what will be a heated political season.
“I thank you a lot,” Berlusconi said to Father Massimiliano Pusceddu. “I will try to meet your expectations, and I promise from now on, 2½ months of absolute sexual abstinence, until April 9.”... And “absolute sexual abstinence” must mean . . . well, “absolute sexual abstinence”. No Silvio-love for anybody. Not even for Silvio.
More from The Times of London:
Jocular, brimming with energy and, above all, ubiquitous, Silvio Berlusconi has jostled and jested his way into every Italian living room over the past six weeks. Romano Prodi, recycled after his stint in Brussels to lead, yet again, the multiparty gaggle that passes for a coalition on the centre-left, has hardly had a look-in on the small screen. Tycoon Silvio is gambling that by stamping the campaign early on with the force of his personality, he can re-energise the disaffected centrist base of his Casa delle Libertà and, against the odds, snatch victory from defeat. Given what a lot of Italians think of his personality, the man’s self-confidence takes the breath away.

Yet the gamble might, conceivably, pay off. It would be a triumph of the unpalatable over the invisible, made possible by the inarticulateness and incoherence of Italy’s fragmented Centre Left. A recent front-page article in La Repubblica, a paper that detests the entire Berlusconi phenomenon, complained bitterly that no one in Italy was talking any more about jobs, prices, pensions or Italy’s “decline”. The Prime Minister had made himself the sole subject of conversation, not least because the “aphasic” Centre Left was “incapable of talking about its ideas and programmes, let alone getting them across to the citizens”....

In 2001 Signor Berlusconi made specific pledges that should ensure that the campaign will not be issue-free. In a famously short and categorical “contract with the Italians”, he promised to lower taxes and simplify the infernally complex tax system; put more police on the streets and cut crime; raise the minimum pension; create 1.5 million new jobs; and fund 40 per cent of an ambitious ten-year programme of infrastructure projects.

If he failed to meet at least four of these five pledges, he promised not to stand again in 2006. That was rash. Rasher still is his boast to have honoured the lot. Even his supporters say he would do better to admit that much time has been wasted, say that he has made a start on these famous (and sorely needed) reforms, has abolished inheritance tax and raised the tax threshold, increased some if not all pensions and, above all, created enough jobs to bring unemployment way down, to about 7 per cent. He could then, blaming stroppy unions and the deadweight of accumulated public debt that limits every policy option, say that it was all much harder pounding than expected. With growth hovering around zero and most people feeling poorer than they did in 2001, Italians are in no mood for fairy tales.

Political season in both the wider country and Oltretevere = double trouble.