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There are two ways of looking at the outcome of the Italian elections, in which the centre-left coalition has won a wafer-thin victory. The first is strictly economic. Most non-Italian commentators have emphasised that the urgent structural reforms required of the country are unlikely to be carried through by a government reliant on such a heterogeneous coalition, and enjoying so slim a majority in the upper house. There may be debate about the exact nature of these economic reforms, but little doubt that so precarious a government cannot carry them through. Romano Prodi, in this analysis, emerges as a “lame duck” prime minister even before he has taken to the water.

However, there is another way of looking at recent events in Italy and it is probably more important than the first. These elections have not only been about economics. In a profound way they have addressed the connection between politics and ethics. Many politicians, both in the land of Machiavelli and outside it, have denied the existence of any link at all. But they do so at considerable risk, both to their own integrity and to the future of democracy in Europe.

Over the past five years, Silvio Berlusconi has pushed an extraordinary series of legal measures. They include new laws on decriminalising accounting fraud, on shifting a trial from one court to another on the grounds of the judges’ “non-neutrality”, and on accelerating the introduction of the statute of limitations. All these measures have been widely denounced by the opposition as having a strong ad personam element, closely linked to Mr Berlusconi’s own legal troubles and to those of his friend and former lawyer, Cesare Previti. The judiciary has been subjected to immense pressure to toe the governmental line. In a country where the relationship between citizen and state is, to put it mildly, a complicated one, the supremacy of personal over collective interests, of partial over impartial judgments, has been underlined time and again.

The other area where politics and ethics should intertwine, but frequently do not, is the media. In this most sensitive area for modern democracies, Italy is in terrible trouble. The Italians are a television-watching nation. It is said that TV in Italy constitutes the third house of parliament. Mr Berlusconi came to power in this house in 1984, when he was allowed to establish near-monopoly control of commercial television. In 2001, on becoming prime minister, he added to his empire the indirect control of all state channels. Meanwhile, the media authority remained a toothless dog.

The TV diet served up to the nation in the past 20 years has a great deal to do with its moral health. The endless advertisements, quizzes offering large prizes, variety and “reality” shows, have all transmitted a powerful version of what Italian family values should be. They have encouraged families to put their own acquisitive instincts first and rarely asked them to sacrifice some part of these for the good of Italian civil society, let alone the wider world. Mr Berlusconi has presided over this empire of consumer dreams. He has left “Indian reserves” of opposition, but all in all, his is a new form of tyranny, painless and videocratic.

Europe and Britain have turned a blind eye to these sinister developments. Most of the time the Italian leader has been treated as a bit of a buffoon. In government circles, it is said that Tony Blair, the British prime minister, considers Mr Berlusconi useful. It is reasonable to ask: useful for whom and for what? Once again, politics and ethics press to be considered together and not casually separated.

Mr Prodi is no knight in shining armour. He cannot be expected to reverse at a stroke the cultural trends of two decades. He may not even want to. But he is a decent man who knows what is wrong with his country. During his first government (1996-98), he steered Italy impeccably into the single monetary system. He has promised to reform Italian TV, return to an electoral system based primarily on constituencies, increase aid to developing countries, pass a proper law on conflicts of interest and let the judiciary go about its job.

With his tiny majority in the senate, he may not survive for long. But if he manages to govern with clarity and urgency for a year to 18 months, he can go back to the electorate with a reasonable chance of success. He deserves all the support he can get, both within his country and outside it.

The writer teaches contemporary history at Florence University and is the author of Italy and its Discontents (Penguin) and Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony (Verso)

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