Visiting Italy at the time of the 2006 election, I described Silvio Berlusconi as “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.”

And his remarkable career continues. Berlusconi lost that election by the tiniest of margins, but the new centre-left government fell after less than two years, and he returned to power with a comfortable victory in fresh elections in April 2008.

It’s been a rocky ride since then. Berlusconi’s marriage collapsed after a string of lurid sex scandals, his nose was broken when a protester threw a statuette at him, and his country’s economy continues to give headaches to European policymakers. Worst of all, his trusted lieutenant, former deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini, broke away from Berlusconi’s “People of Freedom” party and tried to unseat him in parliament.

But Il Cavaliere, as he’s known, is nothing if not resourceful. Against all expectations, he survived votes of confidence on Tuesday — relatively comfortably in the senate, and by just three votes in the chamber of deputies. The result was met with large-scale rioting in Rome.

Taking the longer view, there is nothing new in any of this. Italy was a byword for political instability for decades. Berlusconi, with his tireless efforts to unite the centre-right forces into a single bloc, is the one who has given it a degree of stability in recent years; from

2001 to 2006 he presided over the only full-term government Italy had had since World War II. (Which, depending on one’s point of view, suggests either that the Italians are an ungrateful lot, or that the virtues of stability are over-rated.)

What made Italy more ungovernable than its western neighbors was the presence of a powerful Communist Party: too large to be ignored, but too dangerous to be allowed into the normal business of coalition-making.

Only after the end of the Cold War was Italy allowed to develop something like a normal party system.

But its history means that Italy remains something of a special case: wanting to be counted in the club of political and economic stability with France, Germany and Britain, but still plagued by uncomfortable similarities with the more volatile Mediterranean group that includes Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Berlusconi aptly personifies the contrast: an experienced world statesman who nonetheless behaves all too often like a cuckoo in the nest.

Although he has survived this time, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Berlusconi’s career is drawing towards a close. At 74, he must be wondering how many more fights he has left in him. The largely ceremonial post of president, which falls vacant in 2013, is said to be an attraction for him — not least for the comprehensive immunity from prosecution that it would bring.

The bad blood between Berlusconi and Fini is unlikely to be overcome; three votes is not enough of a margin to face another two years with the current parliament, but the governing coalition is in no shape to contest fresh elections. Something will have to give.

Yet Berlusconi is not without claims on his country’s gratitude. Corrupt and idiosyncratic he may be, but his government has been generally moderate and responsible. Italy remains a civilised place, and its economy has so far weathered the storm, albeit precariously. Compared to many less corrupt and more principled leaders, the harm that Berlusconi has done barely registers.

George W Bush and Tony Blair never took bribes or cavorted with prostitutes, but they caused untold human suffering and laid waste whole countries. Our own John Howard, faced with a refugee problem several orders of magnitude less than Italy’s, chose to thumb his nose at international law in a way that horrified European opinion.

The demonstrators on the streets of Rome may not appreciate the point, but when it comes to politics, the corrupt are the least of our worries.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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