Is Berlusconi Gone for Good?

The Italian leader who seems to have survived every sort of scandal there is might finally succumb to the dropping economy

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a meeting in Rome / Reuters

Update, 2:30 p.m.: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is to resign following the approval of "key economic reforms," reports the BBC. This is Berlusconi's third term as prime minister. Though his political persistence is legendary, it looks for now as if economic troubles have accomplished what countless scandals--several arguably more serious than the Watergate scandal that forced an American president's resignation--could not.

How do you say "it's the economy, stupid," in Italian? On the face of it, those thinking the economy determines all political fortunes should be thrilled by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's current troubles, which include pressure to resign and a crucial vote today that could force early elections. What better proof of their theory? This is a guy who, just to name a few of his shenanigans, appointed a former topless model "Minister for Equal Opportunity," almost certainly bribed a witness in his corruption trial, tried to shove political debate off the airwaves (which he largely owns), cavorts around with underage girls, and makes inflammatory and diplomacy-damaging public statements about the superiority of Western civilization: how has he not been chucked already? Apparently, a debt crisis was required.

Of course, if all Italian politicians needed to push for early elections was disastrous economic performance, one does wonder what took them so long, especially given the great cover they had from Berlusconi's rotten polling. As the Financial Times' Rachel Sanderson pointed out at the time, local elections in May were presented by Berlusconi as "a referendum on himself," wherein he was pretty well trounced. November 1, Bloomberg reported Italian IPR Marketing's poll results showing that confidence in Berlusconi "fell two percentage points to 22 percent from a survey last month." That, of course, means that he wasn't in a great place last month, either.

Take a look at this rendering of Italian GDP over time, courtesy of Google's visualization of World Bank data. See that giant peak at the end? That peak is when Berlusconi began his latest stint as prime minister (he also held the office from 1994 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2006). That dive is what happened immediately after. Though one can hardly blame Berlusconi for the worldwide financial crisis or a resulting recession, it's not like Herbert Hoover caused the Great Depression, either, and he still got scrapped for it.

There's another fascinating thing about this graph. See the dip in the early nineties that appears to be the next largest dive after the current one? The prime minister who presided over that, Giuliano Amato, only got one year before losing office (although his real problem was dealing with corruption investigations in which he was never directly implicated; The Economist graded him rather well on budget issues). But then he got a second try from 2000 to 2001.

You could even argue that Berlusconi's already been removed once over the economy. Bruno Mascitelli and Emiliano Zucchi floated precisely that theory in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies in August 2007. Though the economy as a whole may have superficially appeared to have done all right, there was a "noticeable decline in economic and business confidence expressed by both Italian families and, more importantly, by Italian business" during his 2001 to 2006 term as prime minister, they argued. "Promising much, as Berlusconi had, and delivering little, as the reality demonstrated, may well have been decisive in the decision taken by Italians to deny Berlusconi [another] term," they wrote at the time.

His reputation obviously recovered, though, as he resumed office in 2008. Quirk of the parliamentary system though it may be, Italian politics appears to be pretty forgiving to those with economic black marks.

That's not to say the parliamentary system explanation for Berlusconi's longevity is by any means the most fun. Take, for example, another 2007 academic paper, "When Likeness Goes With Liking," this one in Political Psychology and put together by a team largely from the University of Rome "La Sapienza." The authors found that, in both the U.S. and Italy, "people saw their own personalities as being more similar to those of the candidates they prefer." The team's results could not establish the "mechanism" by which this occurred -- i.e. whether people liked Berlusconi because they identified with him or whether they identified with him because they liked him.

The social and political sciences are messy and complicated. Results are rarely about a single factor, and a single factor doesn't always produce the same results. Of course, if these last paper's authors could have established that Berlusconi's three-time success was in part about Italian wish fulfillment, what a conclusion. Just imagine an attempt by James Carville to formulate campaign strategy in Italy: "It's the economy, stupid. Also, the prostitutes."