By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 11:21 PM
ROME - In his nearly two decades at center stage in Italian politics, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has played an at times tragic, at times comic, but invariably dramatic role. So it is fitting that his career comes down to a theatrically tight confidence vote in the Italian Parliament on Tuesday.
"It is madness to initiate a crisis without any foreseeable solutions," Berlusconi, 74, said in a passionate plea to the Italian Senate on Monday morning ahead of the Tuesday reckoning, which Italians have taken to calling "B-Day."
In his address, Berlusconi argued that the nation's precarious economic situation made this an inopportune moment for a government collapse and for new elections. His enemies agree that new elections might be madness, but for entirely different reasons.
"Elections at this point for Italians and for the country would be dangerous," said Walter Veltroni, a former mayor of Rome who lost to Berlusconi in the 2008 general election. "Don't ever underestimate him."
Berlusconi's opponents know full well that winning elections is the media mogul's specialty. Even though he has suffered a steady stream of sex scandals, international gaffes and an appearance in the WikiLeaks cables as a "feckless, vain and ineffective leader," Tuesday's vote brings an enormous opportunity for Berlusconi, one of Europe's most accomplished escape artists.
A defeat in Parliament would force his resignation and prompt Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to either appoint a temporary government or call for new elections. Berlusconi's political opponents, both the fractious left and the former allies in the right who spurred the current crisis, are not at full strength. So they are wary of taking on a billionaire who controls three major television networks and a slew of newspapers and magazines and has a total war approach to campaigning.
"The political opponents know how risky it is to challenge him in immediate elections," said Maurizio Viroli, a former adviser to former Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and now a professor of politics at Princeton University. "The risk is serious."
If elections come sooner rather than later, Berlusconi remains the most viable leader for a broad center-right coalition. A fresh electoral victory would probably invigorate Berlusconi, increasing the likelihood that he would remain in power through 2013. That is the year when an electoral college of Parliament members and regional representatives pick a new president, a mostly ceremonial position, but one that looms large over the Italian imagination. The president also holds office for seven years, a period in which Berlusconi - who is a defendant in several criminal trials - would be immune from prosecution.
Berlusconi is expected to survive the first confidence vote in the Senate, but in the lower house of Parliament he no longer enjoys a broad majority. Projections of a one- or two-vote margin of victory or defeat are common, and magistrates in Rome are looking into allegations, rampant in the media that Berlusconi does not personally own or control, that the prime minister has purchased the votes of members of Parliament by, among other things, paying off mortgages.
"We are dealing with a cattle market," said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at the John Cabot University in Rome.
In a sign of how serious things have gotten for the prime minister, Berlusconi in recent days has sought to offer an uncharacteristic olive branch to his political tormentors.
First among them is Gianfranco Fini, an ambitious former neo-fascist who has steadily moved to the political center and in July stepped out from under Berlusconi's shadow by withdrawing from the government. Over the weekend, Fini cast serious doubt on any chance of a truce when he said that Berlusconi's motivation for staying in power was to ultimately avoid prosecution.
While Fini needs Berlusconi out of the picture if he is to ever become prime minister, his power now rests mostly in his capacity to bring down the government, and he is loath to be remembered as the man who brought instability during an economic crisis. Berlusconi is a master of playing the victim in Italian politics and would surely use the collapse to his advantage. And his potential opponents know it.
"If we got to elections in the next six months with the same 'Berlusconi? Yes or No?' discussion of the last 16 years, with an electoral law that's hard to even look at, it won't be good for the stability of the country," said Pier Luigi Bersani, the likely candidate of the left, who was nevertheless reluctant to declare. "What we need is a transition government."
At first blush, it seems hard to understand why any candidate wouldn't be eager to run against Berlusconi. Italy has suffered economic paralysis under his tenure, and he has enough personal problems to fill an opposition research binder. There are the sex scandals, the hair plugs. There are the blatant conflicts of interest, the mystery of his financial empire's origins and his willingness to sculpt Italian law to protect himself from a raft of criminal investigations. And yet, none of that ammunition has proved especially resonant with Italian voters. What has been missing, many agree, is a viable option.
"This idea of leadership, that it takes a superman to command, we tried that with Berlusconi," said Massimo D'Alema, a former left-leaning prime minister, who is widely blamed for accidentally resurrecting Berlusconi after the mogul's first government fell in 1994. "And it was a disaster for our country."