Italy's Changing Politics

The face is all too familiar. Italian billionaire Silvio Berlusconi has held the office of prime minister twice before, and his compatriots have grown comfortable with his slightly saurian grin. They're even complacent about the flamboyant media magnate's myriad conflicts of interest. At 71, he would seem to offer the same old same old.

But the election that just brought Berlusconi's coalition back to power in Rome in fact represents a massive change in the country's politics—one perhaps more sweeping than even Berlusconi is prepared for. If he fails to make desperately needed economic and political reforms this time around, he'll have no one to blame but himself.

Overall, the political spectrum has shifted solidly to the right. The balloting on Sunday and Monday simply wiped out small parties, which have haunted Italy's infamously unstable politics for 60 years. Some little red fringe parties had the power to make, break and paralyze the coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Romano Prodi. But Berlusconi's main rival in these elections, former-Communist-turned-centrist Walter Veltroni, refused to associate with them. When the votes were counted, the radicals had failed to win a single seat in the new parliament.

Italy still can't claim to have a reliable two-party system, but it's getting there. Veltroni was quick to concede defeat on Monday night and also to say he would work with Berlusconi to push through the reform measures both agree are needed.

Berlusconi's key ally, Umberto Bossi, could be more problematic for him than his opponent. Bossi's party, the Northern League, often is caricatured as anti-immigrant, anti-European and anti-southern-Italian. Certainly it plays on widespread feelings of insecurity about crime and popular misgivings about fast-growing African, Arab and South Asian populations. As far as the rest of Italy is concerned, in the past the League's rhetoric was outright secessionist, but that line has been softened to emphasize "fiscal federalism" in which the rich regions of the industrial north would spend their taxes mainly on themselves, not on Naples or Sicily.

After years of decline, the League made a dramatic comeback at the polls this week, taking more than 8 percent of the popular vote and winning enough seats in both houses of parliament to tip the balance decidedly in Berlusconi's favor. But Bossi and Berlusconi are not exactly friends. Bossi brought down Berlusconi's first government in 1994 and can be expected to drive a hard bargain for his support now. One prize he reportedly wants: the interior ministry, which controls the national police.

Berlusconi, for his part, has seemed considerably less flamboyant in this campaign than in years past, often warning of hardships ahead rather than making inflated promises. Already Italy's economy is at a standstill. The prospect of global recession could make things much worse. And there are some chronic crises that have to be resolved. The national airline, Alitalia, is an albatross the government cannot seem to unload. Naples has been buried under mounting piles of garbage for months.

The old political solution to such problems was buck-passing, pure and simple. There was always somebody you could blame in the fractious Italian parliaments of the past. But this new government looks as though it's going to be stable, which means its leaders are going to have to be accountable. That, truly, is something new under the Roman sun.