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Italy: 'Priest Eater' Opposes 'Plastic Shark' In Election

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Italy is holding a general election Sunday that is expected to decide between a center-right alliance headed by controversial media magnate Silvio Berlusconi and a center-left grouping led by former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli. The election campaign has relied heavily on projecting the personalities of the two leaders, but behind the image-making lie serious issues, not only for Italy but for Europe as a whole.

Prague, 11 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It's the "priest eater" versus the "plastic shark" in Italy's general election this weekend (13 May).

At least, that's how the two main contenders refer to each other. Center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, who is favored to win the election, has called his center-left rival Francesco Rutelli a "priest-eater," in apparent reference to Rutelli's past membership in the anti-clerical Radical Party. Former Rome Mayor Rutelli has returned the compliment by calling Berlusconi a "plastic shark" who scares no one.

Between the insults, both men have been cultivating glossy media images as dynamic leaders who will move Italy into a new period of stability and prosperity. Some critics have complained that image-building has replaced substance in the campaigning.

But behind the media hype, serious issues are at stake, not only for Italy, but also for the rest of Europe.

In all, dozens of political parties -- ranging across the colorful spectrum of Italian politics -- plus scores of independents, are standing for the lower house of parliament and the Senate. But Berlusconi and Rutelli are the two who count most.

The last opinion polls, published two weeks ago, put Berlusconi still ahead of Rutelli for the post of prime minister, to replace outgoing Premier Giuliano Amato, who heads a center-left coalition.

Both sides have promised tax cuts and institutional reform, with the center-right promising particularly to spur economic growth and create jobs.

But a Berlusconi victory would raise problems. One is the question of conflict of interest because the multimillionaire has vast business activities, including television, publishing, and financial services. This means there could be strong conflict between his business and political interests. Berlusconi has pledged to tackle the problem within 100 days of taking office, possibly by setting up a trust for his business assets.

Political analyst Nicholas Whyte, of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, notes that an unhealthy intertwining of the political and business worlds sends an especially bad signal to the Eastern nations now negotiating membership in the European Union.

"The reason it is particularly bad is that part of the message we are trying to sell to the [Eastern EU] applicant countries -- the former socialist states -- is that they must open up their economies, that it is very important to reduce the nomenklatura-effect, where the political leadership as a whole controls both the levers of politics and of business. And that's why it's particularly worrying to see Italy slipping the other way."

In addition, Berlusconi -- Italy's richest man -- is beset by a series of long-running and complex legal battles, both at home and abroad.

Another potential problem lies in Berlusconi's choice of political allies. These include Umberto Bossi and the Northern League, which has a strongly anti-immigration stance. Also in the center-right alliance is the National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini, which traces its roots back to the Italian fascists of the Mussolini era.

The prospect of having an Italian ruling coalition containing such parties has alarmed some of Italy's EU neighbors, and there has been talk of imposing diplomatic sanctions on Rome in the event of a Berlusconi victory. That now appears unlikely to occur -- unless a center-right government flouts accepted EU democratic norms.

As analyst Whyte puts it: "I would say that people are going to be watching the new Italian government very carefully, to see that it does honor the democratic conditions that all EU member states and [Central and East European] applicant states have promised to uphold."

Politicians like Bossi have the potential to take a Berlusconi coalition to the right of the mainstream EU spectrum. But Whyte says that largely depends on Berlusconi himself:

"The question is, is he [Berlusconi] going to be a moderating influence, or is he going to be the captive of his allies. My sense of Berlusconi is that it is more likely than not that he will be a moderating influence, and that he is quite capable of pushing people around."

Whyte feels that Berlusconi is capable even of dropping those rightist allies who become inconvenient.

On the issue of attitudes toward the EU, the center-right is expected to be cool toward further European integration, if that would lead to more power going to Brussels. In a recent press interview (with "La Stampa" of Turin), Berlusconi's candidate for finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, questioned EU plans to enlarge eastward. He said the money spent on the Easterners would limit the funding for development in Italy's poor south. By contrast, Rutelli's center-leftists have adopted much more pro-European positions.