Italy prohibits the conduct of opinion polls for ten days prior to an
election, so pundits have to fall back on their own observations (or
guesswork) as to whether things have changed in the final period of
campaigning. Silvio Berlusconi has made it interesting, with his
last-minute promise to abolish property tax on the family home and his
colourful remarks in the last televised debate. But I’m not convinced
it’s going to make a difference.

The property tax move is fairly typical right-wing populism. It’s the
sort of thing John Howard would do, but with an important difference:
Howard wouldn’t spring it in the last week of a campaign. He’s too
cautious; he would prepare his ground first. Berlusconi is playing it
for all it’s worth, but it still looks too much like a gesture of
desperation.

So while it’s certainly not a done deal, my view is that the polls,
which have pretty consistently put Prodi ahead, are likely to be right,
and “the cavalier” will go down to “the professor”. Prodi has the
advantage that his coalition covers a very broad range, and a vote for
it could be any number of things: a vote for the free market, or
against it; opposition to cronyism, or the Iraq war, or the mafia, or
the church; or just discontent with Italy’s lacklustre economic
performance.

The Italian left is a mixed bag. Prodi’s biggest single strength comes
from post-communists, but there is a bewildering array of smaller
groups. Some are rabid free-marketeers, whose only reason for being on
the left is that they are against the church, but the coalition also
includes the old left wing of the Christian Democrats. Keeping this lot
together in government (a task that has already defeated Prodi once
before) is going to be a Herculean task.

But the fear of instability doesn’t seem to scaring people away from
the left, and Berlusconi is getting little credit for having provided
the most stable Italian government since Fascism. Partly perhaps
because there are rogue elements on Berlusconi’s flank as well, partly
because Berlusconi, at least according to the opposition, has himself
put stability in peril by changing the electoral system. But also
perhaps – another rash generalisation – because stability in government
just isn’t a high priority for Italians.

The breadth of Prodi’s coalition also means that, if he wins, its
implications will be hard to draw out. Berlusconi’s international
allies, most obviously George W Bush, will be able to dismiss it (at
least privately) as a vote against corruption, not against the
centre-right’s policies. But an Italy without Silvio Berlusconi at the
helm will certainly be a less exciting place.

Peter Fray

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