Published: August 5, 2013
If the serial high jinks of Silvio Berlusconi were the sole cause of Italy’s prolonged malaise, his conviction for criminal tax fraud last week might have signaled better times ahead. But the three-time prime minister has hardly been the only reason for Italy’s economic underperformance and irresponsible political culture.
Italy’s center-left, when given its chances by the voters, has not done much better. And as long as Germany and the European Union put false dogmas of fiscal austerity ahead of Italy’s real economic problem — anemic growth — no government in Rome has much chance of leading the country toward better days.
After many tries, Italy’s criminal justice system finally caught up with Mr. Berlusconi last week. Convicted of criminal tax fraud, he has now exhausted his last avenue of appeal and should begin serving his sentence by October. In all likelihood, that will mean a year of house arrest, expulsion from the senate seat he now holds and a six-year ban on running for re-election.
For Mr. Berlusconi, 76, that could mean an end to his active political career as leader of Italy’s largest center-right party. But with no obvious rivals, and his 46-year-old daughter, Marina, being groomed as his protégée, Mr. Berlusconi could continue calling the political shots from offstage. Nearly 10 million Italians cast their votes for his party and allied groups in February.
On the center-left, the problem is not a flawed leader, but no real leaders, and no real program either. Most of the best-known leaders are former Communists far too eager to prove their capitalist orthodoxy by unquestioning adherence to the ascetic doctrines favored by German bankers.
This has not made them popular with Italian voters. Nor has it helped the Italian economy emerge from what is now a double-dip recession. Unemployment is stuck around 12 percent, and growth has been minuscule for most of the past decade.
With such obvious weaknesses on both sides of the spectrum, the real winner of February’s elections was “none of the above.” The patched-together government that finally emerged in April is an ungainly coalition with few achievements to its credit so far.
What Italy desperately needs is wholesale political renewal producing capable leaders who can rally popular support for overdue structural economic reforms. Should such leaders emerge, their first responsibility would be to lead a credible challenge to the dead-end austerity demands of Italy’s European partners.