Pondering Italy After Berlusconi

  • World
  • Wednesday, 09 Nov 2011

PIANE DI FALERONE, Italy (Reuters) - The chairs were filled for the mid-afternoon card game outside my local coffee bar but inside, it was clear Tuesday was not a normal day.

Instead of the usual televised soap opera, the woman behind the bar had turned to a news channel where a much bigger drama was playing out. Each greeting from a new customer was followed by a glance at the screen and the seemingly vague question, "What's happening?"

But she knew what they meant. What's happening with Berlusconi?

Between commentary from Roman and Milanese media and politicians, who all agreed the prime minister's days in office were numbered, Silvio Berlusconi's weary face flashed on the screen. His usual bluster gone, he seemed unimaginably powerless. Italians have grown used to seeing him in tight spots, but never like this.

Those watching no doubt did so with mixed emotions. Berlusconi has so dominated Italian politics that it is impossible to imagine government without him.

He was less a prime minister than an emperor, a figurehead with larger-than-life appetites who ruled paternalistically over a people he was convinced loved him. And why should he think otherwise? He was repeatedly returned to office despite numerous corruption charges, rumoured links to the Mafia, accusations of influence buying, and scandalous - not to mention embarrassing -- charges involving his personal life.

And in a way, Italians did love him. One intellectual famously said of his fellow countrymen earlier this year during the height of the "Rubygate" sex revelations, "There is a little Berlusconi in us all."

This might help explain Italians' patience with Berlusconi. That, and the fact that Berlusconi unlike many Western politicians, campaigned with the implicit promise that he and his government would leave Italian citizens alone if they left him to govern as he pleased. It was a deal Italians could live with because the alternative, an interventionist central government, was unthinkable for many.

Sometimes, from my home far from Rome on the Adriatic coast, it seems to me that Italy has not changed since it was formally born as a nation in the 19th century.

The units of government still start with the family. That remains the most important entity in an Italian's life. It is the base of all social relations, and in rural areas it is also usually the source of employment: Young men and women traditionally follow their fathers and mothers into the family business.

Official government plays a part in Italian life through local government, or the commune, but these too are in many respects an extension of the family.

Commune bureaucrats know the local citizenry because they grew up together. They know all the family histories. Problems and concerns are handled with a mix of professionalism and intimacy. There is no such thing as a faceless bureaucrat at this level in the Italian provinces. This familiarity is one of the reasons Italian life, for all its apparent chaos, works so well.

But trust in government begins to break down beyond that, and by the time it gets to Rome it is nearly entirely gone. To many Italians, the federal government is a sinkhole into which taxes are poured and from which - at best - the status quo is maintained. And that is what Berlusconi promised.

It is not that Italians are happy with Berlusconi's government. Parents grumble that the educational system is a farce. Young people say a stagnant economy offers no future and no possibility of work. Innovation has not been championed. And the manufacturing base that helped resurrect Italy after World War Two has moved east to China. That development is seen as benefiting only the company directors and the politicians who wrote the laws making such trade legal.

Still, despite the complaints, the fear among Italians I've talked to is that whoever follows Berlusconi will take more and offer less. And this fear has only grown with the European Union's demands for deep cuts to address Italy's enormous debt.

If there is little trust in Rome there is even less in Brussels. While talking about the turmoil in Europe, the owner of a clothing store said with a shrug, "The EU is not a union, it is a bordello."

I have sensed a resignation among Italians that the era of Berlusconi is over. And there is also a new sentiment being expressed that maybe that is not such a bad thing. But the future - even tomorrow - is unsettled in the extreme.

For more than a decade, Berlusconi has been Italy, and Italy has been Berlusconi.

(Editing by Janet McBride)

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