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It seems sadly fitting that the legacy that Silvio Berlusconi’s government will leave Italy is a gigantic mess. It appears that his rival, Romano Prodi, has pulled out a narrow victory that will allow him to put together a shaky majority in parliament. A weak government, presiding over a sharply divided country, will allow Mr Berlusconi to continue to play an important role in blocking any measure that is of interest to him.

This was not only predictable but actually planned by the outgoing Berlusconi government and partially created by a new electoral law passed in the government’s twilight. A few months before the election, Mr Berlusconi – after studying polls that showed the centre-left winning a substantial parliamentary majority in the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system – decided to return to the proportional voting arrangement that the Italian electorate had roundly rejected in a popular referendum in 1993.

The old proportional system was thought to have encouraged a plethora of small parties, unstable government majorities, short-lived, revolving-door governments and endless horse-trading among coalition partners that fostered corruption and lack of programmatic clarity in the post-war period. Mr Berlusconi came to power for the first time in 1994 thanks to the new majority-rules system and once declared that the majoritarian system was his “religion”. But he lost his religion when studies showed his coalition doing better in 2006 under the proportional system. At the very minimum, the centre-right calculated that even if the centre-left won, the proportional system would fragment the vote and leave them with a fractious, unstable coalition that would need the centre-right’s help in order to govern.

In a moment of shocking candour, Roberto Calderoli, Mr Berlusconi’s minister for reform, admitted: “The ­election law? I wrote it, but it’s a porcata,” a vulgar term that roughly means “a piece of crap”. It was the move of a retreating army that has decided to blow up the bridges, poison the wells and sow the fields with salt to make life difficult for the conquering army.

Although yesterday’s result looks like a defeat for Mr Berlusconi, from his point of view it must count as a considerable, if painful, achievement. A few months before the election, most polls showed him behind by eight to 10 percentage points and even at the end exit polls gave the centre-left a comfortable margin of victory of 4-5 points. In spite of waging a lacklustre campaign, the centre-left appeared to enjoy a point of seemingly insurmountable advantage: extremely widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of the Berlusconi government.

Italy experienced zero growth in 2005, the fifth straight year of virtual economic stagnation. In five years, the Italian economy grew by only 3.2 per cent, the worst of all European Union countries and under half the average for the rest of Europe (7.1 per cent). Italy had sunk from 24th in the world in terms of competitiveness to 47th, according to World Economic Forum rankings. Italian productivity and exports have fallen and the standard of living – above the EU average in 2000 – has dropped by 7 per cent. Italy’s gross domestic product – on a par with the UK’s in the early 1990s – is now more than 15 per cent smaller.

These problems are not all Mr Berlusconi’s creation. Italy’s centre-left governments between 1996 and 2001 did not do much better. In those years, in which the EU as a whole grew at an annual average rate of 3.1 per cent, Italy grew at just 2.2 per cent; and in the Berlusconi years Europe grew at 1.45 per cent while Italy limped along at 0.35 per cent.

Even the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank – certainly no ideological foe to Mr Berlusconi – found that Italy’s economic freedom increased slightly during the centre-left government and diminished during the Berlusconi period.

So how is it – given this bleak picture – that the election was this close? One simple – but incomplete – answer is Mr Berlusconi’s continued domination of television. On the state channels which he controls indirectly, he and his ­centre-right allies received about 60 per cent of the coverage, whereas on the Berlusconi-owned channels, he received between twice and seven times as much coverage as his rival.
In an election as close as this, determined by undecided voters who began paying attention to the campaign towards the end, this may have been decisive.

Control of television is a necessary but insufficient explanation. It is equally true that Mr Prodi and the centre-left failed to give Italians strong, positive reasons to vote for them. They seemed to think it was enough not to be Mr Berlusconi. The fact that the Berlusconi-Prodi duel forced Italians to choose between the same old faces that confronted them in 1996 (when Mr Prodi won), sent a depressing signal to many Italians eager for some positive change. Both the left and the right conveyed the impression of a tired country in desperate need of fresh blood and new ideas to confront the serious problems of a country in (relative) decline.

The writer, professor of international journalism at Columbia University, is an author most recently of The Sack of Rome (Penguin), about Silvio Berlusconi

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