I’ve been in Italy for five days, so it’s time for a sweeping generalisation:
the lesson that Italians have taken from their turbulent history is
that government is at best a nuisance and at worst a deadly enemy.
There is very little attraction here for the idea (or illusion) that
government can be a positive force for good.
Very simplistic, no doubt. But it explains the apparently paradoxical
fact that elections attract plenty of posturing, including apparently
quite extreme views, but little real passion. People gripe about the
government, but because they come with such low expectations, they don’t
really get worked up about it.
That may be an advantage for Silvio Berlusconi, who faces re-election
this weekend. Although his promise of revitalising the economy has not
been met, it’s not clear how many believed it in the first place. On
the other hand, the perennial habit of kicking the government (any
government) at every opportunity is going to count against him.
There seem to be three main sets of issues in this election. First, the
economy, which is hardly dire but is consistently disappointing.
Second, the usual run of “cultural” Left-Right issues: gay marriage,
the Iraq war, the place of religion, and so on. Third, Berlusconi
himself: a larger-than-life figure who evokes a reluctant admiration
even from those who are appalled by his ability to get away with things
that would have put lesser people in prison long ago.
The polls continue to show Berlusconi’s coalition trailing its
centre-left opponents, headed by Romani Prodi. Prodi’s lead has never
been large, but it has held up remarkably well – the sort of late swing
back to the incumbents that’s been seen in many other countries doesn’t
seem to be happening. He may still pull a rabbit out of the hat, but at
this point Berlusconi looks like a man who knows he is in trouble.