Only four weeks to go until the Italian general election on 9 April,
and it’s shaping up as a fascinating contest. Current centre-right
prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, media magnate and tireless
self-publicist, has been in power since the last election in 2001,
making this the longest-lived Italian government since the fall of
Mussolini in 1943. But he is facing a strong challenge from the
centre-left coalition led by former prime minister Romano Prodi.

Berlusconi has not had a good week.
Prosecutors in Milan have sought the indictment of him and his former
lawyer, David Mills (husband of a British cabinet minister), on bribery allegations. Then his health minister, Francesco Storace, announced his resignation over charges that he spied on political opponents in a regional election last year.

Storace was already a controversial figure, as an earlier report in The Guardian
explained: “Mr Berlusconi’s health minister has waged a war against the
spread of the abortion pill Mifepristone [i.e. RU486] and, at the end
of last year, announced a plan to put pro-life volunteers into
state-funded abortion advice centres.” Now that sounds familiar.

Both the government and its opponents are large, unwieldy coalitions.
Prodi’s “Union” (“L’Unione”) ranges from free marketeers to Greens and
Communists, while Berlusconi’s “House of Freedom” (“Casa delle
Libertà”) includes liberals, populists and more or less unreconstructed
Fascists. If they win government, it is widely expected that the left
could fragment, but Berlusconi’s team would probably be even more
volatile if he was not around to hold it together.

Storace, for example, belongs to the National Alliance party, which
describes itself as “post-Fascist”. Further to the right, however, is
the party of Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of the dictator, who
was welcomed back into Berlusconi’s coalition last month – and who was
one of the opponents Storace is accused of spying on. Mussolini was in
trouble as well last week, responding to a “drag queen-turned-politician” on an Italian talk show with the retort, “Better to be a fascist than a f*ggot”.