Italian voters run out of sympathy for Berlusconi


Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waits for the arrival of the President of the Swiss Confederation Micheline Calmy-Rey on June 1, 2011 at Palazzo Chigi in Rome.


Vincenzo Pinto

ROME, Italy ― Earlier this week Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s usual woes ― a sluggish economy, his own trials for corruption and abetting prostitution ― were compounded by something new: electoral defeat.

Voters rejected Berlusconi’s favored candidate on what is basically his own doorstep: Arcore, a quiet suburban town of about 20,000 inhabitants a few miles from Milan.

Arcore, though small, is familiar name to every Italian: It is the home of the prime minister’s private residence, the 18th-century Villa San Martino. This is where, according to prosecutors, Berlusconi held his infamous “bunga bunga parties."

Now Arcore's citizens have elected a woman, Rosalba Colombo, a 53-year old housewife, as their new mayor.

“I have won in the wolf's lair,” Colombo told reporters after her victory. She used the contrast between her unglamorous appearance and the high-heeled, scantily-clad girls who used to attend the prime minister's parties as an asset in her campaign.

When in February women across Italy took to the streets to protest against Berlusconi, a small but well organized crowd filled Arcore's main square, recalled Fabiana Camolese, a 29-year old teacher who has lived there for three years.

“I don't know much about [Colombo's] program, but after all what a mayor has to do in a small town such as Arcore is pretty straightforward,” said Camolese. “But I am proud that a woman has been elected here in Arcore. It feels like a small revenge.”

In local elections across Italy in the last 15 days, the center-left opposition has gained ground, and especially in the wealthier north, previously Berlusconi territory.

The most symbolic blow against the prime minister came from Milan, Italy's second city and economic capitol, where the media tycoon made his first millions in real estate in the 1970s.

After 18 years of center-right administrations and a bruising campaign that Berlusconi himself depicted as a referendum on himself and his government, the Milanesi elected Giuliano Pisapia, a mild-mannered lawyer from a formerly communist far-left party, as mayor. In the run-off Sunday, he crushed the incumbent, Letizia Moratti, with a 55.1 percent majority.

Naples was another key defeat. There, Berlusconi's candidate expected to breeze into office against an outgoing center-left coalition tainted by the mismanagement of a waste-disposal crisis that left tons of uncollected rubbish in the streets. But he was defeated by Luigi De Magistris, a former anti-corruption judge from the fiercely anti-Berlusconi “Italy of Values” party.

The prime minister's coalition lost in several other mid-size towns across the country where, according to polls, it had been safely in the lead until a few weeks ago. Now, the junior party in his government, the separatist Northern League, has intensified its maneuvering to distance itself from Berlusconi. Analysts predict that his already shaky government might fall.

What seems to have changed is voters’ sympathy for the prime minister.

Despite the scandals that surrounded him in recent months, Berlusconi had remained popular with the Italian public. He cast himself as a martyr, persecuted by “Communist judges,” accusing the left of trying to bring him down in court after being unable to beat him at the polls. Now, it seems, voters aren’t buying it.

“Arcore is usually a toss-up,” said Giuseppe Civati, the local opposition councilor for Arcore in the regional assembly of Lombardy. “We win it in the good times and we lose it when the wind is against us.” Berlusconi's scandals might have proven the decisive factor this year for many moderate voters. The town, Civati said, has a love-hate relationship with Berlusconi.

For one thing, locals have noted the increased security around the prime minister’s estate, said Camolese, the teacher: “My boyfriend was questioned by police just because he paused near his villa to make a phone call.”

It would seem locals’ sympathy is wearing thin.