A stake through the heart might keep Silvio Berlusconi out of Italian politics, but it better be hammered in hard. Last week he renounced all intention of running again for the premiership of Italy, then received a four-year prison sentence (later reduced to a year) for tax evasion.
Facing that, another man might have sought privacy, but the former prime minister shows – and licks – his wounds in public. He called a press conference and threatened to withdraw his party’s support of the government of technocrats led by Mario Monti. Without that, it would fall. Italy, its economy still fragile, would be plunged into a deep crisis. Berlusconi, who advertised his decision to renounce office as having been dictated by his “love of Italy,” now seems, in his rage over the sentence, to be imitating Samson, pulling down the pillars of the temple as he leaves it.
On the day Berlusconi was sentenced, Elsa Fornero, the cabinet minister responsible for work, pensions and equal opportunities, came to Oxford to speak to a largely Italian audience, a meeting I chaired. She – like Monti, an economics professor – is the kind of politician you find in a TV series like The West Wing. She speaks as one intelligent adult to others, patient in explaining complex legislation. She’s at the heart of the storm that the Monti government’s cuts have stirred in the still powerful trade unions.
At one point, a student asked her, with a certain edge to the question, why her government, in power for almost a year, had not done more about corruption – a sore point in an ailing country. Ms. Fornero, her voice a little husky, said that corruption was endemic, deeply antisocial and fearfully hard to eradicate by government action. Instead, Italians had to feel their taxes were part of their social duty, part of what it was to be a citizen. Evading tax should no longer be thought of as the clever or responsible (to one’s family) thing to do, but instead as an act that impoverishes society. Elected politicians in Italy rarely speak like that.
She did not mention the former prime minister once, though I tried to tempt her to comment. This government depends on the major parties’ support, and tiptoes carefully around apportioning blame for Italy’s dire financial state. Anything else would be irresponsible.