Italy has survived a brutal campaign with a new government of the left. In a turnout that Americans can only dream of, almost 84 percent of the electorate, for the first time including Italians living abroad throughout the world, has demonstrated what happens in a democracy. Split nearly — but not quite — equally, the popular vote exceeding even the 2001 national elections, the center-left coalition headed by Romano Prodi has displaced the ruling right wing coalition of Silvio Berlusconi by a slim 0.1% of the vote. The premier immediately went on the attack, stating "The result must change"–notice carefully the language, not "might"–and accused the left of massive election fraud. But Italy isn’t Florida and there are no hanging chads.
The Interior Ministry a few days ago retracted the initial, mistaken, report of many tens of thousands of improper and disputed ballots, now saying there are, at most, about 6000 (about 2500 in the Camera and 3500 in the Senate votes–these were separate votes and tallies) and these are only to be certified by the magistrates and the matter will be closed. It is not even within 10% of the number needed to change the balance of power. It would seem the election is secure and the Unione has won.
But Berlusconi, ever the "Master of the Big Lie," continues to play his cards in the only safe place, the media he owns, and even his disgraced and dismissed former Northern League minister Calderoni has reiterated the assertion that upwards of 40 thousand votes are in dispute, a drop in the bucket to the millions according to the premier, and they have demanded a recount. Usually, during the election, Berlusconi’s ofhand remarks have been simply foolish, but he isn’t funny this time: Berlusconi has openly threatened to bring down the government, to make it impossible for anything to move in a divided Senate (even if the left now has the clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies, in the Camera it is three votes short of an absolute majority in the Senate and both houses must approve any proposal before it becomes law).
This is a direct threat, the declaration not only of a stalemate but an open war against the half of the country that sent him packing. His party, Forza Italia, gained only 23.7% of the vote compared to the Unione coalition that achieved a vote of 31.3%. The two communist parties combined won more than the Christian Democrats–oops, the UDC–who are the survivors of the former dominant party of Italian politics before being toppled by the political scandals of the 1980s; the only reason Berlusconi is even close in the Senate is the 13 seats won by the Europhobic racist crazies from the Northern League. The margin of victory, in a genuinely sweet irony, came from the foreign vote–the very group included for the first time in the Senate elections by the action of this government.
One has to ask why? Is this just the simple incapacity of a defeated politician to accept that his party has lost? Hardly. This isn’t a war of ideology, not from a government that’s opened its arms to the worst elements of Italian political life and that has accepted the cries of "Duce" from the crowd.
Once out of power Berlusconi will be vulnerable, politically and legally, to everything from which his immunity as President of the Council has protected him.
I can only imagine that the magistrates, who as a professional group have been continually insulted and frustrated, and who have sustained repeated attempts to restrict their independence and impartiality by the (formerly) majority government, want to come down on this politico like a ton of bricks.
Even with all the bravado — not calling Prodi to congratulate him on his victory and behaving like a barbarian in the press and in rallies — Berlusconi cannot change the outcome but can threaten its stability and success. Remember, this is the same politician who claimed to have done more for Italy than anyone since Napoleon, who compared himself to Jesus, and who promised to resign from politics and disappear if not elected.
All that is in the past. It’s enough to satisfy his aims to threaten continued instability of the country. A democracy is a terrible thing to waste!
STEVE SHORE is an American physicist at a research institute in Italy.