Face Off: Berlusconi v. Veltroni

Silvio Berlusconi—media mogul, billionaire and two-time prime minister—is facing off against Rome's former mayor Walter Veltroni in April elections. The winner will face enormous challenges, including Italy's economic stagnation. In separate interviews, the two candidates sat down with NEWSWEEK reporters Jacopo Barigazzi and Barbie Nadeau, respectively, to talk about foreign policy, the Mafia and their own personal values. Excerpts:

On whether his first visit abroad would be to Israel:
I've received an invitation from President Olmert to go to Israel to take part in the celebrations for the 60th birthday of Israel because they consider me as one of their best European friends. I answered positively because I consider Israel as a state we have to protect, a state that in geographical terms is outside Europe but that for culture, religion, economy is completely Western and European. It's the only real and full democracy in the region. I've always shown my proximity to Israel, and if Olmert will maintain his invitation, I'll be delighted to go to Israel to take part into the celebrations.

On how we would get along with Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel:
I work well with everyone. I have a temperament that is able to open up to what is needed. I know how to be concave when the other is pointed and how to be convex when the other lacks something. Then what counts is not just the fact that I'm the Italian prime minister, the seventh largest economy in the world, but also the fact that I'm an entrepreneur. A man is what he has realized in his life and thereby it's clear that there is a sense of respect and regard toward me. My warmth means that often leaders get close to me in a relationship that is also a friendship

On how he would handle China if he were in power now:
I have deep respect for China, for its civilization and for its economic power. I'm also convinced that trade can bring democracy, but I believe the world's democracies should put some pressure on China to respect human rights and, as far as Tibet is concerned, to try an alternative to violence. I would invite China to talks with the Dalai Lama, who is a spiritual and religious leader and who doesn't ask for independence but only for a certain degree of autonomy in cultural and religious aspects.

On how to stop the Italian Mafia:
The state must go back to legality, something the [left-wing parties] haven't done. When small minorities blocked a road or a railway, the left didn't intervene to guarantee citizens' rights. A state that doesn't do that loses its legitimacy. We have already given evidence of our commitment. Bernardo Provenzano [the last "Godfather"] was arrested after the last elections, but we put him under control a month before the arrest. We jailed many mobsters and we kept the law on hard jail conditions for them. But at the same time we have to complete infrastructures for Sicily with the Strait of Messina bridge and [the] Salerno-Reggio Calabria [motorway] that is the main road in the south. We must have no indulgence for mobsters. Often there's a prosecutors' easygoing approach: investigators arrest mobsters but then they are released. The sentence has to be served and we have to build new jails that have to take away freedom but not dignity or, worse, health. However, it's not something one can do like that. It takes time.

On how he would react if his daughter wanted to have an abortion:
I don't think that one of my daughters, with the education they have received, will ever ask me for something like that. [They have] too much respect for life. It happened to me with one of my daughters, who, by the way, loves her partner, and she had a baby who has given me a deep joy. In Italy we have a law that we'll never touch and that should be fully applied [so that] the state provides all the means to support those who are afraid to have a child.

On how he would react if one of his children declared himself a homosexual:
I'd surround him or her with love even more because I'd know the difficulties this could mean [to live] in society. I'd consider it as a fact of nature, surely he or she would not be guilty.

On where he'll be in 10 years:
I don't know. If you want to interview me in 10 years you'll have to call me and we'll set an appointment in a place that suits both of us. For me, power is not important. I'm fulfilled. I have reached a point where I had 56,000 people working for me. I have wonderful sons and daughters. Now I'm in politics. I'm the only one who can keep together the center-right, and there's no one else. Those who are now part of it could not hold together the coalition. Again, I don't know. Ring me in 10 years' time.

On Barack Obama:
I, like a lot of Americans, was struck by Obama at the Democratic convention four years ago. I began to follow him, and I met him in Washington. I wrote the preface of his book for the Italian translation. For me, Obama seems like a man of our time. Not just because he is young, or that he is black and a real representative of the United States, but also because he symbolizes a big change in America. But for me, he is also a man of ideas. He can think outside the old confines, and he can also carry a strong message about the real problems America faces. I like him a lot.

On Italy's role be with the Arab world:
We have always had an obvious role. First, we are here geographically. Italy should play a coordinated role for Europe, not as a single country. We should open a dialog about peace, about illegal immigration, about development and growth. We can play an important role but it has to be coordinated with the whole European continent.

On the how to fight the Mafia:
I am convinced that [Sicily] is capable of being extraordinarily productive. The statistics are overwhelming that this is an underused resource. For this reason, we have to cut out the Mafia.

In the past we have made a lot of mistakes. The Mafia today is much weaker than it has been in the past. As an organization it is weaker thanks to law enforcement but also because the Sicilian society has changed and has stood up to the Mafia. It is a movement that is very interesting and that is working. The national government can help, but the local government has not backed up the efforts.

It can work [in Naples], as well. There are also the police resources and the people who want to stand up to those organizations. But there the problem is the giant mass that oppresses the people. There, we also have to work to cut away at it as has worked in Sicily, but it is just beginning there. There must also be the certainty of punishment. We need to reinforce the article 41 bis [the Italian law that allows detention of organized-crime suspects without the same certainties of other criminals], we have to apply the laws that are already in place to fight organized crime.

On abortion:
I believe we should keep [abortion legal]. It is a law that has actually reduced the number of abortions, and it is a law that works. We could reinforce the need for prevention rather than changing a law that takes away the responsibility of the woman for her own body.

On how he'd react if one of his daughters declared herself to be a homosexual:
I believe that everyone can choose their sexual orientation. For me it is a problem that simply would not exist.

Correction (published April 1, 2008): The original version of this story incorrectly stated that abortion is illegal in Italy.