This time, it was all meant to be different. Silvio Berlusconi exuded sober responsibility in his successful bid to be re-elected prime minister in April. Unsurprisingly, say his apologists. His government from 2001 to 2006 was a tale of missed opportunities to modernise Italy and leave his mark on history that he now regrets.
There were other reasons for hoping that he would govern the country for its own good, rather than for his. He was known to aspire to the presidency and so needed to acquire an aura of statesmanship. One reason his previous government failed was resistance to liberal reform by the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats, which is no longer part of his coalition. And he seemed to have solved his personal difficulties with a string of ad personam laws that secured his legal position and protected his business empire.
Yet ten weeks after the swearing-in of Mr Berlusconi’s new government, the political agenda is dominated more than ever by his personal and corporate interests. In its short life, the government has put forward at least four ad personam measures.
One was intended to dodge a European Court of Justice ruling that Rete 4, one of three television channels in Mr Berlusconi’s Mediaset network, was occupying frequencies that should go to another operator. The government proposed a decree to prevent Rete 4 being moved to satellite, but it ran into such fierce opposition that it withdrew the text for “reformulation”.
A second decree was aimed at restricting telephone tapping in criminal investigations, and also the publication of transcripts. There are arguments for this change: a 2005 study by the Max Planck Institute found that eavesdropping was more common in Italy than in any other European Union country. Since the transcripts are often leaked to the media, even before charges are laid, innocent people can find their most private remarks splattered across the press.
But whenever Mr Berlusconi proposes any judicial reform, there are understandable suspicions of his personal motives (he recently called the judicial system a “cancer”). Before returning to office, he was taped on the orders of prosecutors in Naples as he lobbied an executive of Italy’s public-broadcasting service, RAI, on behalf of some actresses. Since Mr Berlusconi undertook to back the executive in a private venture, both men were laying themselves open to accusations of corruption. Indeed, a judge is now mulling whether they should be indicted.
As the phone-tapping decree was being drawn up, rumours began of more compromising tapes, said to contain sexually explicit conversations between the prime minister and his 32-year-old equal-opportunities minister, Mara Carfagna, a former topless model and Mediaset presenter. After it was reported that prosecutors would destroy material irrelevant to their inquiry, the cabinet held back the decree, rousing suspicions that the purported conversations with Ms Carfagna lay behind it. Ms Carfagna has said she will sue over the allegations being made about her.
Critics say that Mr Berlusconi’s legal problems are also central to two other measures. The first was drafted by the legal counsel who is defending him in court on charges of giving a $600,000 bribe to a British lawyer. Stuffed incongruously into a package of law-and-order changes, this law would have frozen for 12 months a range of trials, including Mr Berlusconi’s. By then, a second bill was to take effect guaranteeing immunity from prosecution to Italy’s four top office-holders, including the prime minister. Such was the outcry over the first measure that it was neutered by amendment, but only after it became clear that the second could be pushed through by the autumn, when Mr Berlusconi’s bribery trial is due to end. The security package, approved by the Chamber of Deputies on July 15th, now contains what some opposition politicians say is a fifth ad personam measure, entitling defendants to plea-bargain in mid-trial.
The government’s (and parliamentary) fixation with the courts and judicial reforms might be less alarming were there not so much else to be done that is both important and urgent. After a deceptive uptick in the first quarter, the economy is virtually stagnant again. Bank of Italy analysts paint a desolate picture of weak consumption and rising inflation. They have also raised the spectre of credit problems in a country that has so far been spared the worst of the global squeeze. They note that 70% of Italian mortgages are at variable rates, higher than the EU average—and this in a country where real disposable incomes are shrinking.
The central bank forecasts a paltry 0.4% growth in GDP this year and next. Its 2008 estimate is in line with the government’s (between zero and 0.5%), but more optimistic than the IMF’s April prediction of 0.3%. The Italian economy is yet again the backmarker in the euro area. Perhaps the most alarming news came on July 10th, when industrial production was reported to have slumped in May, down by 4.1% on a year earlier. Emma Marcegaglia, head of the employers’ lobby, Confindustria, said she was “really worried”. She is right. The engine of the good ship Italia is sputtering; the wind is blowing it towards the rocks; and the captain is busy with other matters.
So far the government’s only economic initiatives have been to scrap an unpopular house levy and reduce the tax on overtime. There is no hint of any debate on the liberalising measures that Italy’s hidebound economy badly needs. On the contrary, the government seems bent on pumping even more taxpayers’ money into the crippled national airline, Alitalia, and is now talking of changing the law to permit this. Looking ahead to the autumn, Mr Berlusconi has at least announced one “radical reform”—but only of the courts.