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Loose Lips Sink Ships

4 minute read

Silvio Berlusconi’s government has turned the gaffe into something of an art form. Since taking office 13 months ago, the Prime Minister and his key officials have managed to make rude or politically incorrect remarks about everything from the euro to Islamic civilization. One of their baldest blunders came last week from Interior Minister Claudio Scajola, 54, who was pressured to resign after two newspaper reporters quoted him referring to Marco Biagi — a labor ministry adviser assassinated in March by the Red Brigades terrorist group — as a “pain in the ass.” Scajola, under fire for not having provided Biagi with a security detail, suggested the victim had been interested only in extending his government consulting contract.

Through a mixture of shrugs and subterfuge, the Berlusconi government usually manages to skate past these lapses in taste. But with Scajola’s offensive comments, its luck ran out. “The government, as insurance companies would say, has a natural predisposition for accidents,” wrote Sergio Romano, a conservative columnist for the daily Corriere della Sera. The Scajola mishap has given Berlusconi his shakiest week in office yet. And after a strong showing by the center-left in recent local elections, the poll-happy Prime Minister has suddenly got shy about releasing his own popularity numbers.

Berlusconi began picking up the pieces by naming Giuseppe Pisanu, 65, as the new Interior Minister. More seasoned than his predecessor, Pisanu is a former Christian Democrat who helped build Berlusconi’s Forza Italia into the country’s largest party after the billionaire media mogul entered politics in 1994. But Scajola’s departure comes just six months after Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero stepped down in a dispute over what he called the government’s weak commitment to Europe. In addition to the turnover in these two cabinet posts, Berlusconi has also recently lost two key under secretaries in separate in-house spats. To opposition leader Francesco Rutelli, the resignations and policy feuds show the internal instability of Berlusconi’s government. They “overpromised” during last year’s election, he says, and now “they can’t deliver. The honeymoon is over.”

Still, Berlusconi manages to display his domestic strength in ways that leave foreign observers perplexed. Since Ruggiero quit, the Prime Minister has taken relatively little heat for serving as interim Foreign Minister, saying he’s the only man capable of reforming the diplomatic corps. Berlusconi did, however, indicate last week that he would fill that post by the end of the month. Back on the home front, the Senate approved a bill addressing Berlusconi’s conflict of interest as both owner of Italy’s private national television broadcasters and Prime Minister, which gives him political control of the public broadcasters as well. The bill, which lets him keep his properties as long as he doesn’t actively manage them, has been widely derided as toothless. Yet Italian voters don’t seem too bothered by his conflicts of interest. A graver threat is the imminent showdown with CGIL, the country’s largest labor union, over the government’s efforts to trim Italy’s job-protection benefits. While two more moderate unions agreed to a labor-reform package Friday, CGIL chief Sergio Cofferati wants a referendum on the issue and vowed to call a general strike in the fall. But Berlusconi might prevail here too. His party and its allies in the National Alliance have an overwhelming majority in the ruling coalition that shields them from the whims of smaller, less predictable partners. As a result, Italians assume Berlusconi will serve out his five-year mandate — a novelty in a country that has had 59 governments since World War II. “They simply have the numbers previous governments didn’t have,” says a Western diplomat. Those numbers may be needed to protect the government against future gaffes.

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