It’s not over till Silvio stops singing. The onetime cruise ship crooner has called his party – the People of Freedom – to order. Most have obeyed his command to withdraw support for the technocratic government now running Italy, including those who until recently said it was a good thing old man Berlusconi was out of the running.
The pesky thing is, Berlusconi is right about some things. His party is right when it says “the situation is worse than a year ago.” Berlusconi will be right, as well, if he judges that the parties of the left – presently the likely winners in a future election – don’t rouse much enthusiasm in the electorate. And he may – just may – be right that his money, his media and the old Berlusconi magic might tip the scales toward him.
But is he right enough to win back power? It will depend on whether his fellow citizens’ disappointment at the results, so far, of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity program is greater than their memory of how ineffectual and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was by the end of his rule. This week, Monti announced he is resigning once next year’s budget is approved.
Ask the question: Are things worse than when, a little over a year ago, Monti took over as prime minister? Monti, a former European Commissioner, a much decorated economics scholar and a man with respected by world elites came into office with a hopeful sobriety. I remember watching the four-hour press conference he and his fellow ministers gave when they began their terms. It was an extraordinary event, with long, detailed speeches by Monti and his senior colleagues. Elsa Fornero, the work and pensions minister, broke down in tears, realizing how tough the road ahead would be. Here, I thought, was a cabinet of people untouched by the sleaze that laps at Italian politics. They were preoccupied with explaining, even if in too great detail, their actions. Anxious Italians and Europeans would, if they listened carefully, understand them.
And when you ask that question about this past year, as Italians will before they vote, you get an answer: things have gotten worse. Nearly everything on which people rely – the family, savings, jobs, quality of life, consumption – is at a lower level than at the end of 2011. The portion of families facing real difficulties – in poverty, or near it – has increased from 16 percent in November 2011 to 30 percent today. Families are central everywhere, but more so in Italy than in most places. When one-third of them are suffering, it spreads a miasma of fear and despondency through society.