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  • Italian Politics Becomes a Circus
    Berlusconi and Prodi are the main attraction in what's become a pre-election spectacle.
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    MARCH 12, 2006 - With general elections set for April 9 to 10 in Italy, politics of late has turned into a three-ring circus. At a time of zero economic growth and growing dissatisfaction in Italy, pitting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi against center-left leader Romano Prodi is offering more than Italians bargained for. On the program: Scandal, riots, and old men trying to be forever young. Here is what you need to know:

    Enter the Clowns: The 66-year-old Prodi is a former Christian Democrat known for being careful and somewhat boring. Think of him as having some of the same defects as Al Gore. He was prime minister between 1996 and 1998 before serving as the European Commission president. During that time, he was sometimes the subject of serious threats by anarchist groups.

    The incumbent Berlusconi, 69, is the exact opposite of Prodi. A true personaggio as the Italians would say, Berlusconi is charismatic, talkative and anything but cautious. The richest man in Italy, he owns everything from television stations to one of the nation's most storied soccer clubs, A.C. Milan. No stranger to controversy, Berlusconi has long been accused of having conflicts of interest and has long avoided corruption charges that constantly creep up on him. Yet, he's managed to a hold together an Italian government for five years, which is a record in post-World War II Italy. Go figure!

    Pie in the Face: In the last weekend, Berlusconi has found himself again amid scandal. Now, prosecutors are asking he be put on trial for corruption. The allegation is that Berlusconi paid - or had someone else pay - David Mills, a British lawyer, about $600,000 in 1997 in exchange for false testimony in two trials against the prime minister. Both men deny this ever happened. And Berlusconi has gone as far as saying that the Italian judiciary system needs reform because he believes he's being targeted by the political opposition. "Italian prosecutors are 'the disease of our democracy,'" said Berlusconi as reported by the Associated Press yesterday. In the past, other accusations have either ended in acquittal or been thwarted by the expirations of the statute of limitations, according to the same article. Who knows what will happen this time?

    The problems don't end there for Berlusconi. This weekend, his health minister resigned over accusations that he spied on political opponents, according to The Age. There seems to be a lot to get over just before elections. In fact, the polls show that Berlusconi is down 3.5 percentage points.

    The Lions Attack: Prodi has his own set of worries. Yesterday, up to 300 left-wing protesters, many of whom reportedly wielded crowbars, set fire to cars and a building on one of Milan's busiest streets, according to Reuters. A nail bomb injured nine police officers and at least 45 of the protesters were detained, according to the same Reuters article. The extreme right group Tricolour Flame, which is running on Berlusconi's ticket, was hosting a fascist rally that sparked the protest from the left. Berlusconi and company were quick to accuse leaders from Prodi's coalition of having been among the rioters, which they deny. Tension is clearly running high for both camps. And that can be dangerous.

    Oldest Men Alive: Italy, a country that treasures tradition and rarely values merit over age, might also be frustrated because Italian leaders were recently found to be among the oldest in the world. Many are starting to worry that the future will be dim because no one is grooming the next generation for government - or anything else. A report prepared by the Rome-based think tank Glocus, and covered by Reuters, shows that 54 percent of public leaders in Italy are over 60, up from 46 percent in 1998, with 23.4 percent over 70. Berlusconi, Prodi and President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who is 85, all fit the bill. Some are blaming the problem on parents because 82 percent of Italian men between 18 and 30 still live at home, and Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the industrialized world. In a country where people want to look as young as possible (Berlusconi had a hair transplant and eye lift, recently) and don't value taking on adult responsibility until later in life, it's no wonder the leadership is mostly made up of nonni, say experts.

    The Main Event: In just a couple of days, on March 14, Prodi and Berlusconi will have their chance to respond to one another and the public in a live televised debate on the government's RAI Uno channel. It will be Berlusconi's wit against Prodi's careful observations. Though there will be lots of speculation on who wins the debate and what that means for the future of Italian government, the true test will come on April 9 and 10, when the public decides once and for all who will be the prime minister.

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