Silvio Berlusconi

Italy's former Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi delivers a speech during a rally of his party "Popolo della liberta" (People of the Freedom - PDL) in Rome, on February 7, 2013 (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)


As Italy’s increasingly surreal election campaign draws to a close, it is still hard to believe that Silvio Berlusconi, who exited government so ignominiously 18 months ago, may well garner enough votes with his coalition partners next weekend to deny the centre-left and Mario Monti an outright win.

Should that happen, as is probable, Italians are destined for more political instability. They may be back at the polls within a year or 18 months.

In that context alone, understanding the enduring appeal of Berlusconi – who failed to stem a decline of Italian economic competitiveness during his time in office and remains mired in corruption trials – can be baffling for an outsider. But go out on the stump with Italy’s veteran showman, as I did on Monday night, and it all becomes a little clearer. Read more

He is not quite kissing babies yet but Mario Monti is throwing off his image as a fusty economics professor and former EU bureaucrat with his first election campaign spot.

The one-minute spot – released today on social network sites and local television stations – shows the human side of the 69-year-old, playing on the carpet with his grandchildren and promising a “together we can do it” better future.

Hammering home the message that the “old parties are not capable of reforming Italy”, the ad skips over the issue that Mr Monti’s centrist alliance includes two of parliament’s most veteran politicians.

If the campaign carries echoes of Barack Obama, could that be because Italy’s technocrat prime minister has hired two consultants from the old team led by David Axelrod, strategist for the US president?

The spot cleverly splices images of wads of cash changing hands and lines of official limousines as Mr Monti promises to crack down on corruption and wasteful government spending while promising economic growth, jobs and “responsible” tax cuts. Read more

Francois Hollande (R) and Mario Monti in Paris on February 3 (BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Mario Monti with Francois Hollande on February 3 (BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy’s foreign policy has long been founded on supporting its western allies in times of need.

Unlike the French, Italy backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; it has troops in Afghanistan and, unlike Germany, it supported – though with some foot-dragging – military intervention in Libya in 2011.

But electoral considerations have trumped solidarity with France over Mali, forcing an embarrassing u-turn.

Mario Monti’s foreign and defence ministers last month pledged logistical help in the form of transport planes and refuelling for the French. “We are beside you, Paris,” newspapers proclaimed. But on Sunday, in Paris, Italy’s technocrat prime minister had to explain to François Hollande that no such support would be forthcoming after all.

Franco Frattini, former foreign minister and member of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right party, is particularly disappointed, having passed a resolution in parliament on January 22 – with support from members of the centre-left Democrats and the centrist UDC – that backed Italian logistical intervention.

“Because of the election campaign we run the risk of not fulfilling our European duties of solidarity,” Mr Frattini told the FT. Read more

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A few weeks ago I was in Oxford for the screening of Girlfriend in a Coma, the film on Italy’s decline written by Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, and Annalisa Piras, an Italian journalist and filmmaker. The audience – consisting mainly of British Italophiles and young Italian researchers who had left the country’s decaying universities to find shelter in British academia – gave the documentary a warm reception. During the discussion I chaired after the screening, Emmott conceded that taking the movie to Italy would pose a far greater challenge. He joked that he and Piras would need bodyguards. Their movie is in fact a brutal exercise in truth-telling, aimed at holding to account those who have run Italy over the past two decades.

Italy’s first reaction has, indeed, proved rather unwelcoming. The Italian premiere of Girlfriend in a Coma, scheduled for February 13 at MAXXI, a museum of contemporary art in Rome, was suddenly cancelled on Friday. Read more

For those used to a democratic system with an established political dynamic – Democrats v Republicans in the US, or Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats in Britain – Italy can seem strange. Some of the parties and alliances running in this year’s general election did not even exist in previous contests.

Italians will be asked to vote in February for one of 169 parties, movements and groups that made it onto the ballot. Many have unfamiliar names, such as the newly formed alliance of Italy, Common Good (which combines the Democratic party, the socialists and others), the Five Star Movement party created by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, or the even newer Monti movement, formed around the agenda of the ex-prime minister.

Data collated by the FT

How could the Italian political system have worked for so long with such a fragmented composition? The answer is that, for most of the time, it hasn’t.

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Mario Monti (L) with Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011 (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Mario Monti (L) with Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011 (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s alliance between Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party and the right-wing Northern League was the last piece of the jigsaw ahead of Italy’s general elections, scheduled for 24-25 February.

With six and a half weeks to go, the situation is still too fluid to make a call on who will win. But, for those not versed in the art of Italian politics, we thought it would be helpful to explain the main players involved, and outline the chances of the two very different men who have held the most influence over Italy in the past few years – Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi.

The parties

  • A centre-left coalition dominated by the Democratic Party, in alliance with the more left-wing Left, Ecology, Freedom party
  • Berlusconi’s right-wing alliance between his People of Freedom and the Northern League
  • A centrist coalition led by Italy’s technocratic prime minister, now turned politician, Mario Monti. This includes the PM’s own list, Civic choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy
  • The Five Star Movement, brainchild of the comedian-cum-blogger, Beppe Grillo
  • A left-wing group, Civil Revolution, set up by the former anti-mafia judge Antonio Ingroia

The Houses

Italy’s cumbersome electoral law, which is different for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, makes the lives of the phsephologists even harder. Here’s what we know about the situation in each house. Read more

The looming political showdown in Italy
Italian prime minister Mario Monti has said he’ll resign, making elections likely to occur next February. But who is likely to win, or even who will run, remains unclear. Both Mr Monti and Silvio Berlusconi are possible candidates. Guy Dinmore, FT bureau chief in Rome, Tony Barber, Europe editor, and Ferdinando Giugliano, leader writer, join Gideon Rachman.

Silvio Berlusconi attends the presentation of the book "The big cheat" by Renato Brunetta (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/GettyImages)

Following a Berlusconi trial is like going to the theatre — it is your civic right to enjoy a spectacle even though you know perfectly well the act bears no relation to reality.

Very little about Silvio Berlusconi, or about the Italian legal system, is quite what it seems. The four-year prison term to which the former prime minister was sentenced on Friday for tax fraud is a good example. There is next to no chance that he will go to jail. The likelihood that he will ever be definitively convicted of this particular offence is not much higher.

Contrary to what he and his devotees might think, the reason is not that he is a paragon of virtue. Nor is it that the Italian courts always uncover the truth in the end. It is rather that the three-tier judicial system operates so slowly that, even if a defendant is eventually found guilty in the highest appeals court, the case has been going on for so long that a statute of limitations kicks in. Read more

On Tuesday, the editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, gave the commencement address at Barcelona’s Esade Business School. His theme was the eurozone crisis – but he began with a story from the earlier, headier days of the new millenium, when the Spanish economy was displaying “sustained dynamism”, in the words of the IMF.

In the summer of 2001, I interviewed José María Aznar and Silvio Berlusconi in successive weeks. Aznar was at the height of his powers. He had just successfully pressed for better budget terms at an EU summit, and boasted of quietly smoking a fat cigar until Chancellor Schroeder and others came round to his demands.

A few weeks later I was in Rome at Silvio Berlusconi’s private villa next to the Spanish steps. Inside, the roses were purple, the ceilings were high and the women statuesque. When I insisted in conducting my interview in French, il Cavaliere responded by crooning an old Edith Piaf song. Then I mentioned I had just interviewed his old friend Aznar at the Moncloa. “Well,” said Mr Berlusconi, suddenly serious, “Spain is a great success story. Madrid is one of the great cities, bustling with commerce and trade. If Italy does not reform, it will be overtaken by Spain in the next decade.”

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Italy will hold an early general election in 2011. That is the judgment to be made at the end of a dramatic day in the Italian chamber of deputies. Silvio Berlusconi has narrowly won the vote of confidence that threatened to topple him. Read more