Thursday, November 10, 2011

Berlusconi Resigns, Sort Of

ROME--Tuesday night, after a dramatic rainstorm, the dome of St. Peter's glowed with an almost palable, paternal benevolence over the Eternal City. It wasn't quite bright enough for the TV correspondents doing live shots in front of the Quirinale Palace, of course, but their breathless reports were strangely reassuring: after 17 years at the helm of Italy's government, Silvio Berlusconi had finally announced that he would step down, and the Prime Minister would have to come to Quirinale to deliver his resignation to the President of the Republc.

It didn't happen. What Berlusconi promised wasn't exactly a resignation, and the message wasn't quite clear enough. Berlusconi lost a critical coalition partner earlier this week, then lost a procedural vote yesterday in Parliament relating to Italy's debt crisis. It looked like he would suffer the same fate that befell the Greece's George Papandreou just last week.

The obituaries were already being written: in the end, it wasn't the sexual escapades that brought Berlusconi down, it wasn't the street protests, it wasn't even the loss of political allies. Rather, it was the same thing that brought down Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns: the financial markets, which care nothing about sex or politics. Once the yield on bonds for Italy's sovereign debt came close to seven percent, Berlusconi lost his remaining support.

The markets responded this morning to the non-resignation with renewed ferocity and even higher interest rates (what is referred to here as "lo spread"). The drama is being measured in hours.

Italians as a whole are both self-indulgent (those shoes! those scarves!) and self-deprecating, by turns passionate and indifferent, but they are always keenly aware of image. That their head of government was seen by much of the world as a swaggering sex clown was, for a time, not so bad. When the Amanda Knox case eventually become an national embarrassment, they just sent her home. Berlusconi's embarrassing antics finally ran into the roadblock of international finance.

The markets were may not reassured this week, no doubt because Berlusconi has slipped through a number of crises in the past. But most observers think his time is finally up. Rome's newspapers reported this morning that Berlusconi had promised President Giorgio Napolitano that he would not run for re-election in February and would step down before then, as soon as an austerity package is approved. The nature of the package and its timing have yet to be revealed.

"I am personally delighted," said Michele Napoli, national sales director for FilmAuro, the distribution arm of the Dino De Laurentiis film studios. "The trouble is it didn't happen soon enough." Napoli's sentiments reflect conversations I overheard in cafes around Rome today. If you want a Big Mac, it's $8 at Mickey D's, by the way.

The question, from an American perspective, might well be, "what took so long?" But this is a profoundly conservative country (occasional forays into liberal politics aside). Everywhere you go, from the Roman Forum to the Sicilian countryside, you are surrounded by "old stones," by the monuments of antiquity and stones that have been in place for centuries. In Seattle, we're lucky to see a totem pole, but in Rome you drive past the actual Colosseo (and gas costs $8.50 a gallon in Europe). Even the manhole covers in Rome are emblazoned with the motto of the Roman Empire, SPQR. There's a literal weight to history that can't be ignored, change doesn't come easily.

No matter how long--hours or days--the prime minister manages to hang on, tough times lie ahead for Italy, but the countenance of St. Peter's will no longer shine on Silvio Berlusconi.

UPDATE, Sunday, Nov. 13th: Mission Accomplished!

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