April 11, 2006,
Brilliant improvisers as they are, Italians will be hard put to find a way through the horrible bog in which the elections have now landed them. Not just bad, things are disastrous, virtually intractable. Italy's national debt is one of the highest in the world, far exceeding the limits that the European Union allows. Victims of the unloved euro, Italians have priced their exports out of the market, unemployment is high, and the costs of state welfare unaffordable. With one of the lowest birth rates in the world, moreover, the population is vanishing. And now instead of a government with a clear mandate to govern, there is a standoff between Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi, respectively the Right and the Left.
Throughout the campaign, invective replaced debate. Personality therefore dominated the issues. Berlusconi played the ringmaster as usual, but he had little to show for his five years in office except noise and laughter and paralysis. Prodi is impossible in other ways, as dull as Berlusconi is lively, a small-print man whose claim to fame is that he foisted the euro onto his countrymen. Just conceivably, a Berlusconi majority might have been able at the eleventh hour to address the country's many dilemmas. A Prodi government can only mean more of the same. And as things stand, the closeness of the numbers, as well as the complexity of Italian democracy, is a guarantee of instability.
Prodi's coalition is a gamut of nine parties running from two Communist parties at one extreme to liberals and Catholics at another all of them unable to agree either on political ends or on means. It should be child's play for Berlusconi or any opposition to bring down such a government and return to the routine of the last 50 years, in which Italian prime ministers have come and gone in rapid succession as though through revolving doors.
This result is less than surprising when one looks elsewhere on the continent. In Germany, Angela Merkel governs through a coalition too fragile and divided to take the measures necessary to modernize. French president Jacques Chirac has just demonstrated that the mob and the unions easily crush even the most timid efforts to reform. Italy is confirming that the signposts in the leading countries of Europe all point to decline.