What a difference fourteen days can make. On May 13, the center-left coalition that had governed Italy since 1996 lost control of both houses of Parliament to the center-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi. Journalists everywhere have already catalogued the mind-boggling extent of Berlusconi’s business empire, his domination of Italy’s media, his refusal to divest holdings since he entered politics in 1994, and the eight court cases in which he is being investigated for everything from bribing judges to laundering money to association with the Mafia. For many Europeans outside Italy, his election is a political and ethical calamity for Italian democracy (some abandoned “good form” during the campaign to agitate against him). For the Italian center-left, Berlusconi’s election is that calamity and more. Taken together, the parties of the center-left actually increased their share of the vote, but they couldn’t find a way to cooperate. Divided, they caused their own defeat.
Then fourteen days later, the center-left won run-off mayoral elections in Rome, Turin, and Naples—the three major cities in play. That evening, three hundred thousand people crowded into Rome’s Piazza del Popolo in a cathartic celebration, cheering party leaders and weeping with relief. For many observers, it was the coalition’s most cohesive moment in five years. The parliamentary fiasco had jolted the parties into working effectively enough to avoid another electoral rout and complete demoralization.
But winning in three key cities doesn’t diminish Berlusconi’s victory. His coalition has a solid parliamentary majority over the main opposition coalition (177 seats to 125 in the Senate; 368 to 250 in the Chamber of Deputies, although several seats are still in dispute). He’s likely to govern for a full five-year term (if he stays out of jail). In addition, his own party, Forza Italia, rolled right over its coalition partners. Under Italy’s byzantine electoral law, parties compete for 75 percent of the seats in Parliament in a winner-takes-all system. Most of the parties consolidate into either a center-left coalition or a center-right coalition to vie for these seats. They run as separate parties and as competitors in a proportional voting system for 25 percent of the seats. Forza Italia‘s share of the proportional vote in the Chamber of Deputies jumped from 20.6 percent to 29.4 percent while its coalition partners all lost ground. Forza Italia, is now Italy’s largest party by a wide margin.
The American press reported that the center-left and center-right had much the same program. That’s partially correct. In economic policy, they both promised the moon on the spending side (vast public works programs, development funds for the South, more money for teachers and low-income pensioners, improved social services). On the income side, they both promised lower taxes. The center-right, however, promise...
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