April 18, 2008 -- IS the European elite's hatred of Silvio Berlusconi preventing a proper understanding of the significance of this week's Italian general election?
The question isn't fanciful. Much of the media in Western Europe, Britain and the United States reported the election as if something disastrous had just happened in Rome. One reads of "the media tycoon" who has just "snatched an election victory" instead of going to prison for unspecified crimes. The phrase most often used by analysts is stark: Italian democracy is in crisis!
Reality, however, is quite different. To start with, more than 80 percent of Italians eligible to vote did so on April 13, a record for a parliamentary election in any of the mature democracies. No sign of crisis there.
The election campaign itself was the most rigorously fought in Italy since its liberation from Fascist rule in 1944. Berlusconi, often portrayed by the media as something of a clown if not a conjurer of tricks, put the case for a market-based capitalist and democratic system in simple but powerful terms.
His rival, former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, leader of the new Democratic Party, succeeded in putting forward the case for a social-democratic system, with the state playing the central role as a distributor of wealth and welfare.
Berlusconi spoke of discipline, family values, hard work and individual generosity. Veltroni countered with his talk of solidarity, sharing and collective compassion.
On foreign policy, Berlusconi advocated a strategy of peace based on strength with a tough message against "all enemies of democracy across the globe." Veltroni offered a policy of "dialogue and accommodation."
Berlusconi's message was unabashedly pro-American, promising to strengthen transatlantic relations, especially in the context of the global War on Terror.
Veltroni urged greater European solidarity and made most of the usual anti-American noises.
For the first time in decades, Italian voters had a clear choice - and they liked it.
Berlusconi's People of Freedom bloc won 47 percent of the votes, the highest score ever for an Italian coalition - 340 seats in the national assembly. Veltroni's Democratic Party received 38 percent of the votes and 239 seats. Thus, Berlusconi ends up with a parliamentary majority of 101 seats, an Italian record. (By comparison, Prime Minister Romano Prodi's outgoing coalition had a one-seat majority.)
The extremist parties of both left and right almost evaporated. The Communists, one of the two largest parties in Italy for more than half a century, together with their extreme-left allies, ended up with just 3 percent of the votes and no seats.
The extreme right, with Alessandra Mussolini, the Fascist dictator's granddaughter, as its mascot, did even worse, collecting 2 percent of the votes. Italy will also become the first major European nation to have no Greens in its new parliament.
Coming so soon after the victory of the French right in both presidential and parliamentary elections last year, the Italian right's spectacular comeback may be part of a European trend.
Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France has decided to rejoin the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a full member. Sarkozy has also canceled his predecessor Jacque Chirac's plan to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan. (In fact he has just agreed to send an extra 800 men to Afghanistan.)
Bound by a friendship dating to the '80s, Sarkozy and Berlusconi are determined to strengthen the Atlantic alliance under US leadership, an objective also shared by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, albeit with far less passion. Is Italy moving toward a two-party system of the kind established in Britain and America since the 19th century?
It's too early to tell. This week's election, however, said that only five of the 38 parties that still compete for votes in Italy have an electoral base close to the 4 percent threshold fixed by the proportional-representation system.
Italy needs a stable government capable of taking tough decisions. The new government must tackle the Mafia, which has returned stronger than ever, contain secessionist trends in the north and bring under control the nation's spiraling public debt. Far from being in crisis, Italy has its first chance of forming a stable government backed by a strong majority and checked by a robust opposition.
For all that, Berlusconi, who is to form his third government and the 62nd in Italy's postwar history, may fail to make good use of the unprecedented opportunity given him. If he does, it would be his own fault, not the fault of the Italian voters, who've defied pundits and prophets and restored his right-of-center movement to power so soon after his defeat just two years ago.