When dawn broke after Italy’s longest election night in recent history, it was still unclear whether Silvio Berlusconi had won or lost. At 3 am on April 11 center-left leader Romano Prodi had declared victory to a huge crowd huddled in the cold outside his campaign headquarters since early afternoon. But the race was far closer than the comfortable win for Prodi that the exit polls had predicted. And although Prodi won the vote in the Chamber of Deputies by a margin of just 25,000 votes out of 38 million cast, it was not until noon on day two that it became clear that he had also won the vote in the Senate, guaranteeing his victory. In a strange twist, the votes that put Prodi over the top at 158 senators to 156 came from abroad–from immigrant Italians and their descendants, an electorate everyone, especially the leaders of the ex-Fascist party Alleanza Nazionale, allied with Berlusconi, had assumed would vote for the far right.
With the popular vote at a 50-50 standoff for the two big coalitions, Italy was divided as it had not been since 1948, when the Italian Communist Party ran against the conservative Christian Democrats in a memorable cold war battle. When a prime minister calls the opposition voters, as Berlusconi did, coglioni–a vulgar word for testicles best translated as “assholes”–a line has been drawn from which it is difficult to retreat. And that was only one of the many occasions on which Berlusconi broke the written and unwritten rules of democratic politics.
So, true to form, Berlusconi refused to concede defeat, even as two of the allied parties in his center-right coalition acknowledged it had lost. After a daylong conference hammering out the boilerplate with his coalition partners, he read out a carefully worded one-sentence statement asking for a recount of some 40,000 contested ballots for the lower house, a process that takes several days. Then he suddenly launched into what appeared to be an impromptu proposal for a bipartisan grande coalizione government in the interests of national unity, like that headed by Angela Merkel in Germany. Although he acts determined to hold on to power no matter what, Berlusconi has lost the election under the law and has no option other than to step down at the end of his mandate in a few weeks, and he is expected to do so.
Prodi’s answer to the big coalition–no, grazie–was quick to come. Although the center left, which runs the gamut from mildly progressive former Christian Democrats to the former Communist Left Democrats to the two parties that still call themselves Communist, was said by many commentators to be too fractious and too weak to endure for long, Prodi was boldly confident. And in fact he has good reason to be, for his margins are not as narrow as they seem. In the lower house he will have 348 deputies to Berlusconi’s 281, despite the close popular vote. In the Senate he can count on at least an additional four or five votes from among the senators with lifetime tenure, so he has a slender but real majority there, too. And the center left is likely to be much more unified than its opponents have suggested, because all of its variegated parties have endorsed a detailed 280-page platform they expect to carry out.
Meanwhile, in defeat, the glue that held the center right together already threatens to dissolve. A leader of the centrist party Unione dei Democratici Cristiani hinted that some of the members might be willing to cross the chamber and vote with Prodi. Although Berlusconi’s campaign strategy–hogging TV time, tax scare tactics and other Swift-boat-style verbal terrorism–had earned him a bigger than expected popular vote, his coalition (from outright fascists and the reactionary Lega Nord to Alleanza Nazionale and Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia to moderate ex-Christian Democrats) has been notoriously unstable when not in power.
Yet hard as it is for the other half of Italy to comprehend, Berlusconi has a loyal electorate made up of cautious, conservative Italians who are frightened of taxes and of being subject to other kinds of legalities and who see their leader as an antipolitician and model self-made man. Many of them live in prosperous Northern Italy, which voted heavily for the center right. Prodi, who has promised to govern for all Italians, will have to speak to some of their concerns. It will take great political skill and inspiration on his part and on that of his center-left partners to defuse the bitterness between the two Italys of the vote.
Another sphere in which the center-left approach will depart from Berlusconismo is foreign policy. Italy will return to the core European fold, strengthening both the European Union as well as longstanding ties with France, Spain and Germany that were abandoned by the diplomatically tone-deaf, opportunistic Berlusconi, who instead embraced Bush and the war in Iraq. Prodi and his allies are committed to getting Italy’s 2,600 troops out of Iraq. One more Berlusconi misdeed to be corrected.