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Europe diary: Italian contrasts
23 March 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell reports on Silvio Berlusconi's political charisma and dodgy humour, and Romano Prodi's deliberate dullness, ahead of Italy's general election next month.

The diary is published every Thursday.


He might lose the election, but Silvio Berlusconi couldn't wish for more enthusiastic supporters. His party is after all named after a football chant. Forza Italia means "Go Italy!" but is probably better translated as "Cooome oooon Italy!" and the rally I am at in Genoa has the atmosphere of a big football match. Nearly everyone is waving a flag and singing the party anthem.

Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi sports a baker's hat at a Milan anti-violence rally

And he certainly knows how to work the crowd. He does jokes, with all the gestures. He plays the clown, shuffling around with a piece of plastic under his feet, throwing it to a security guard.

An old lady wrapped in furs and gold alarms the crowd, tottering from her seat and throwing her arms wide apart to yell, "Silvio!" He breaks off his speech and jumps down from the stage to embrace her. The family we have come with disappear into a scrum at the end, determined to touch his hand. Mum emerges to tell us: "He kissed and hugged me! And said I have beautiful eyes".


Wherever you are in the world, at party meetings there is a battle between journalists, who want to stand up, and the elderly faithful, who don't want their view obscured. So I give in, and plonk myself next to an old lady. She speaks beautiful English and tells me she likes Berlusconi but will be voting for another party in his "House of Liberty coalition". She comes straight out with it. "After the war, everybody put on a red shirt and pretended to be a partisan. I didn't. I was a black shirt. A Fascist." Her motivation then, and now, seems to be a fear of communism. "I have met three people today who will vote communist." She crosses herself, with a glint of castor oil in her eyes.


If there's no doubting Mr Berlusconi's charisma, there's also no doubting his ability to make dangerously off-colour remarks and jokes - comparing respectable German socialists to Nazi guards, or comparing himself to Jesus Christ. It's a bit of a wonder then that a fair few of the Italians I talk to say his real failure is not having shaken the country by the neck economically. You would think this most pugnacious of politicians, with a positive gift to divide, would be the man to "do a Thatcher". But many of Italy's economic liberals say he's failed. Of course, many other Italians would be horrified if he made the attempt.


Romano Prodi
Professorial: Romano Prodi succeeds in being calm and serious
But perhaps dull is the new rock 'n' roll? Earlier, I was in one of those awful aircraft hangar-type buildings, typical of smaller industrial estates, which are even found outside a city as beautiful as Bologna. Men, and the very occasional woman, drone on and on.

The election is two weeks away, and the polls are tight, but I have never been to a less inspirational political meeting. Oddly, it's not the sole politician here who is doing all the talking: would-be Prime Minister Romano Prodi is listening. The speakers are professionals with gripes: chemists, lawyers, journalists and architects. He sits at a top table, hands together, looking for all the world like the professor he is, hearing out his brightest pupils, occasionally tapping notes into the laptop in front of him.

This meeting is called "Building the programme", which has to be even less grabby as a slogan than the one that adorns his posters - "Calm and Serious". That at least sounds good in Italian. Politicians always talk about listening, but he really does. Solidly, for two-and-a-half hours, and then only speaks for 20 minutes. I can't work it out: clever, complacent or totally lacking media savvy?


Colleagues in Brussels warn me that Prodi is not exactly concise in Italian and rambles dreadfully in English.

To sentimentalists like myself, there is nothing nicer than the tiny grocery shop selling tumbles of artichokes and hand-cut ham
But he appears to have learnt his lesson since he was head of the European Commission. The interview he gives me is crisp and snappy and, to me at least, surprising.

One of the big challenges, according to economists, is taking on one of the sacred institutions of Italian life: the family-run firm. To sentimentalists like myself, there is nothing nicer than the tiny grocery shop selling tumbles of artichokes and hand-cut ham. Nothing stronger than the firm we visited where four brothers have inherited their dad's leather and fur shop and run it together. But... the economists say the fact 90% of the Italian economy is made up of small business holds it back, and Prodi says he will encourage mergers and competition, so what was once good for Italy and Europe is now bad for both.

Please send us your comments on issues raised in the diary, using the postform below.

Berlusconi is the worst thing that happened to Italy since Mussolini. In a normal country he would be serving 20 years in jail. In Italy he replaced the king. Italy will not recover until meritocracy and public interests will overthrow compromise solutions and particular interest. The problem lies in its unresponsible political class that will not cease power or can not be held accountable to citizens.
michele zini, , london, uk

The center right has a liberal program for the economy. The center left is somehow in between an open economy and a strong government intervention. Abstracting from the personalities of the two leaders, the real choice is this one...
Claudio Marchiori , New York USA

Italy has just one problem: Italians. Whoever wins, Italy needs more respect of itself, of its population and, above all, of its democracy. When we will develop such a vision of and in our country, than we will be a normal country. But now, we have just to grow up, being, eventually, a place where people are credible. Where politcs mean something.
Giorgio Furlan, Rome

It is true that Italy has a lot of problems. But on the other hand is one of the greatest country in world. The italian lifestyle and the overall economical conditions are more than ok. The problem is that is not official. I think that the basic two problems are: Italy need a mentality change in terms of doing business and competition, in order to create more jobs, hope, stability, etc. Plus a radical generation change in the political circus. For non-italians is difficult to understand such complex culture. Don't believe in official numbers. In Italy there is a lot more than that.
Michele, Bari

Prodi may be dull but it is hard to imagine a greater disaster than the re-election of Berlusconi. Nothing, absolutely nothing has been achieved by his government beyond readjusting the election rules to try and ensure that they win again and passing laws to get their own leader out of the dock. The bizarre thing - Prodi pointed this out in their TV debate - is that Berlusconi talks as though his own coalition is in opposition and the centre-left are the government. I suppose it's a tacit admission that he has failed to achieve anything in the last five years.
Simon Mawer, Roma, Italy

Is the italian economic situation any better or worst then any other european countries or even the USA , the past five years have been bad for every bodies in the western world.Italy under the new(hope not)administration (if will last more then 8 months)a coalition of the greens,the reds,the oranges ,roses and bunch other flowers and trees should be prepared to a very uncertain future,I'm not chanting GO Italy, but WAKE UP and stop to be the Europe's clonws ,your neighbours countries are not better shape then you, just much better organized
Sergio Vallera, OHIO USA

Let me say that Mr. Berlusconi's 5 years gevermnment has been a failure: no economic growth, no modernisation, no libaralisation, no security, actually nothing: now Italy is almost an hopeless country. We will have the last chance next month, Mr Prodi will be charged with a very very huge responsibility.
Marco Moirza, Milan, Italy

Berlusconi has managed to put Italy on the front pages of international newspapers for all the wrong reasons since his election nearly 5 years ago. Whether it was for his remarks against German politicians, or his writing music together with Neapolitan artists, his extraordinary attire when receiving foreign dignitaries in his ¿palace¿ in Sardinia, or his involvements in the countless legal proceedings pending against him ¿dear Silvio¿ has never failed to entertain the foreign public. And this is very saddening because he represents nothing of what open minded, intelligent, honest and hard working Italians really can be. He is only the representation of the many things that are wrong with this country, and this is probably the reason for his success.
George Fort, Correggio, Italy

Yes, it's true that Berlusconi knows how to entertain a crowd whereas Prodi, who is simply a university professor and not the owner of a media empire, doesn't. But Prodi at least does his sums conscientiously. Sums may be boring but they are, I would have thought, necessary in oreder to run a country, especially one with a huge public debt like Italy. Entertaining the crowd would best be left to professional entertainers.
Roberta Pink, Sassari, Italy

Although economic recovery is important, it cannot happen with the country divided between North and South. After living in Italy for five years, the disparity between the two halves of the country and the corruption in the South spoke more to me about what the country lacks on the road to economic progress and nationwide prosperity. There can be no economic recovery without addressing this issue and neither candidate seems to want to tackle this very crucial part of the problem. The Southern situation in Italy is not an urban myth nor something Hollywood invented, it is a very real problem that will hold Italy back from an economic leadership role in Europe and continuously stunt efforts into full and total participation in the world economy.
Teresa Perez, La Plata, Argentina

I lived 4 years in London before making my way back in Italy. In my 4 years I watched 1 general election and I was dreaming to have such politics in italy: so simple, so straight foward, so composed. 3 parties, whoever wins, UK will do better in one thing and worse in the other. Here there are 142 symbols, 20 "major" paries, two coalitions that go from fascists in one side and communists in the other. Here its not a matter of whom to vote for, but whon not to. I won't vote for the "centre-left" as I fear taxes will go up. Nevertheless cetre-right has failed (recession and wars might have had a bigger role than what thought) to get reforms through. We need to change our election system, limit the parties, cancel the extremists'. Too late... another 5 years going nowhere
Andrea, Milan

Please allow me to comment on your "respectable German Socialists" statement. As an Italian living in Germany who watched this comic drama play out 2 years ago, I can assure you that only the most rabid and extremist German socialists would consider Herr Schulz (the man to whom you refer, I assume) respectable. In light of his unprovoked, unprofessional, and eeriely reminiscent of Nazi jurisprudence (if there was such a thing) attack which he made against Signor Berlusconi upon the latter's assuming the 6 month rotating Euro-Presidency, a neutral person would judge the Presidente's response to be appropriate. Needless to say, only the Berlusconi response received wide coverage in the German press. We all hope that the BBC will be more even-handed in its reporting. As we all know by now, extremism of the right and of the left is extremely similar. At some point it converges. Incidentally, since his exchange with Berlusconi Herr Schulz has been uncharacteriscally behaving himself. Keep up the good work. Kind Regards, G.Rizzo
G. Rizzo, Frankfurt, Germany

The Italian and American political situations reminds me more and more of eachother. Are Berlusconi and Bush, or Prodi and Kerry really that different? Both countries have the double problem of confused and frustrated elactorates and candidates who are political tools groomed for office by marketing and special interests. Plato was right, that among the people who do not want to govern are the ones who actually should. Who'll win in this case? Berlusconi.
Mark Monfasani, Boston, U.S.A.

I don't think berlusconi will win this time around, but Prodi sure has one hell of a job in front of him. Everywhere I go I hear people talk about 'la crisi', or the disastrous state of the economy. And to be honest things have deteriorated since Berlusconi came to power in 2001. But it isn't just his fault. The whole system with its maddening beauracracy has to be reformed. I wish Mr. Prodi the best of luck, but I somewhat sceptical that he can pull it off.
John Hemingway, Monza, Italy

Here is how I see the whole thing: polls say the election is too close to call. Most of the commentators (and many others) say this is one of worst electoral campaigns ever. That's true! Most of all, a fact emerges: the rich is getting richer, the poor is getting poorer. I am confident that my fellow citizens, once in the secret of the ballot-box, will open their own wallets and see what's within. Then, they'll make the right choice...
Leo, Taranto, Italy

Dear sirs, i have read all the negative impressions on prime minister silvio berlusconi and i don't agree with it at all for the following reasons which should be remembered: 1) the berlusconi government is the only one in the last 50 years to have lasted for the entire legislature. 2) mr berlusconi has succeded in lowering for the first time in years general taxation and suppresed inheritance taxes. 3) this government has also been able to make a general reform of school and education, of welfare and work (which created many jobs) and has modified the constitution of 1948 (to be approved by referendum). 4) for the first time in italian history italians living abroad are given the possibility to vote. 5) military service has been lifted. 6) a great job has been made on the war on terror. these are only some of the good points carried out by mr berlusconi's government and these are facts on which most italians have had a benefit, so i don't understand why no one is mentioning this and why everyone is firing on the prime minister without looking as things really are. thank you very much for letting me send my comments.
Giovanni Corrado, Principality of Monaco

My wife is a Milanese Italian with a D.Phil. from Oxford. She had lived in the UK for ten years before she and I went sailing in our yacht around the world in 2003. Despite, or maybe because of, our not living in Italy it is clear,even to the meanest intelligence, that Berlusconi and his cohorts are the most corrupt politicians in the free-world. Berlusconi is facing a number of criminal charges if he loses the election. In order to escape arrest I fully expect him to climb into his personal jet and escape to somewhere like Nigeria if he fails to continue to convince the Italians that he is wonderful. Anyone in his position who declares that all the judges in Milan who want to prosecute him are therefore communists must be considered as a dangerous nut-case!
Philippe Wines, Rio Grande do Sul - Brazil

"Man does not live by bread alone": Everybody is talking about economy and figures. Why not talk about family values and then look at the programme presented by the left and the right. Is this too embarassing for the left? I think the left want to concentrate on the economy to avoid talking about other issues which they know the country feels very strongly about, and which would thrash them. As proven in past referendums.
Laura Tiberi, Rome, Italy

Guys,please let's stop saying that the two candidates are the same.When Mr Prodi was prime minister,the finances were in the hands of competent people(Ciampi, former central banker and now President of the Republic).Prodi was able to reduce significantly the farden of the Italian Debt(debt/GDP ratio for the first time decreased).The truth is that if we hadn't managed to enter in the Euro, with Italian interest rates around 10%(unlike the 2% Euro zone),the terrible reputation of Berluscony,the merry exercise of public finances(by Tremonti) and the political and financial scandals we have experienced in the last 5 years, we would be now in default,the same as Argentina.It is now time to call back competent people
Alessandro Moro, London

As an Englishman living in Italy i would like to say nothing in the world can rival Italian politics. Something like 58 governments in sixty years. Love him or hate him Belusconi holds the boat together, strong leadership is what Italy needs. Prodi is dull (although honest at least), and failed to govern during his last term due to a lack of concensus in the coalition. The same thing would happen again if he's re-elected. I think Italy needs fewer political parties (there's well over 10), more controls on corruption and pointless beaurocracy. They want to build the biggest bridge in the world...but new roads here have potholes before they're finished, and to go to the bank you have to take the morning off work! And Silvio, the communists left a long time ago...
Ian, Italy

Let set a record straight: the photo shows berlusconi at what should have been a bi-partisan anti-violence rally in Milan. Members of his coalition hijacked it by plastering all the route with slogans against the opposition.
marilu, Luton, UK

There is no doubt that the cost of life has doubled in 5 years in Italy. This is the thing that most italian don't like and this is why Mr Berlusconi will most likely lose the elections. He has the control of TV and that's why people who look TV appreciate him more. Just think that a recent poll said that people think that Berlusconi can make Italy appreciated in the world, more than what Prodi can do (but italians never saw on TV the video about Berlusconi's gaffe with Mr Schultz, for instance). Many people don't care too much about his gaffes, his media empire, the laws he made for himself, but they care about their wallet. And it is impossible to persuade people that they are richer if they can't go on holiday any more.
Marco Toma, Rome - Italy

Mr Berlusconi is a bright and well connected businessman whose goal is to serve his own interests and those of his class. Such manifest conflict of interest with the well-being of the nation makes him unfit to be our prime minister. Analysist across the board have registered a demonstrable decline in Italy's performance. Growth has halted, wealth is more polarised, balance between legislative, executive and judiciary powers altered, false account fraudes normalised, social spending cut, pensions eroded, employment rendered less secure, international cooperation committments unmet. I think it is high time for a change in leadership and government. I welcome the return of the centre-left coalition.
Simone Babuin, Trieste, Italy

With this rightwing government, Italy has dangerously slipped towards becoming an authoritarian,xenophobic and homophobic country. Where else in Western Europe a former minister can attack in a vicious and honestly quite cheap way immigrants, gay and lesbians and just get away with it? Where else in Western Europe another minister unashamedly states that "you have to live with Mafia"? Obviously, just the thought of voting for a catholic intellectual is for many too hard to bear, but whatever Prodi might do, he will not surround himself with corrupt troglodytes...hopefully.
Angela Di Mauro, london, uk

The lesser of two evils? One has been the longest post-war serving PM in Italian history. Indeed, it has been his second chance leading the government and Italy is in a worse possition than when he took over. Not to mention that he is constantly accused of scandle and he has used his possition to monopolize his personal power. He seems more fit for television entertainment or a Mussolini "lite" than leading Europe's fourth largest economy. The other evil is a former professor. Aside from not inspiring lots of economic reform his first term, I really do not know what is so evil about him. Sometimes I don't get the Italians. This REALLY is puzzling to me. Prodi should win in a landslide!
Pete, Mytiline, Greece

It is usual for me, listening to any conversation about Italy, that none has any memory of the past. Romano Prodi and his political majority were able to assure Italy a place inside the European Monetary Union. Having euro in our pocket is the main economic advantage for any Italian. Even if I can understand the a priori euro-sceptic, right wing, readers will not agree. Now with the same parties, Prodi will be able to achieve, at least, the same good result for this country.
Rosolino, Milano, Italia

When you have been used to British tv, press and basically freedom of speech, it is shocking, even frightening to see the standards of what is supposed to be democratic european country. There is no doubt that Silvio has been the only president to complete a full term since the second world war, but at what cost and to whose gain. the recent case of David Mills was given the briefest of slots,if at all any, while,in the UK it dominated the news. The list is endless. I doubt if his supporters realise (or even care) that he is considered a "joke" in other countries,just like his american counterpart....look what happened there!
Cath Hughes, parma italyTamzin , Leeds, UK

As an Italian living abroad for so many years I've noticed a very simple truth: Italians refuse to be governed by anyone. These upcoming elections will not change much after all, the reality of facing huge sacrifices is scary to many, and we just keep " passing the bucket " to the next guy. Left or right, the future government will not be able to pass laws to face such painful choices to a country which still can't face a hard reality and it's too selfish for the common good.
Adriano Amato, Washington DC, USA

There is one thing it is absolutely vital to remember as the elections draw closer: The logic of Italy finally adopting a political system based on the two-party system was to give the voters the power to express their dissatisfaction with those that rule them. For too long the political hierachy in Italy has had nothing to fear from the electorate - that has to stop now or the country is doomed. This is the perfect opportunity to teach politicians who they work for, which is why I will be 'holding my nose and voting for Prodi' (to 'mis'quote Indro Montinelli). Not because I think he is necessarily any better, or more honest than Berlusconi, put because Berlusca has done a poor job and, businessman that he is he should understand the logic of sacking him for his poor performance. It's time someone else got a chance and if, as I suspect Prodi also fails it will be time to change again. It will probably take at least another 2 elections before the penny drops but what alternative do we have?
Jean Hatton, Pavia, Italy

Mr Prodi prime minister, 10 years ago, has been able to make a good national administration reform, a good tax reform, to let Italy enter in 2 of 3 Maastricht parameters and gain euro. Italy, with the center left governement, had a nice social balance thanks to the possibility gave to the dialog between Industry and Union Trades. Foreign policy built the interests of Europe together the others countries. These are hard times, but today the worst Italy's position is also due to the enormous conflict of interests concernig Mr Berlusconi's goups. All of his energies spent to improve proficts and save himself in front of the law: does it sound a boring tale? It happened. He forgot the society around him with empty promises, scorning Union Trades, he's now loosing Italian Industrial Association: that man is the past, the choice is logical.
Massimo Morandi, Fusignano (RA), North of Italy

in these five years berlusconi has been effective only in pushing laws that benefit him personally. In fact his wealth has doubled, while the country has lagged behind. He has no respect for the law and for the institutions that defend it. He is claiming that the left will win through electoral fraud, as if the Ministry of the Interior were not part of his government. He is accusing the entrepreneurs of supporting Prodi in the expectation of favors from his government as if he did not owe his wealth to Craxi and Craxi alone. Thanks to his,let's say, creative reinterpretation of facts, the campaign would be funny if it were not tragic. If it were about electing the chief of a samba school, not the prime minister of Italy.
geneletti, bergamo, italy

Berlusconi is extremely powerful and unscrupulous. However in North East Italy people don't seem to realise it. They still speak Highly of him or simply say "him or another one... it's all the same" For the past five years Berlusconi has brainwashed people using his mediatic power. Italian tv has its responsability. People who speak like this are ill educated or educated in front of reality show. Satirical or political or educational programmes are censored. Who dares to criticise this man loses their jobs... What frightens me is that he will do anything to be reelected even cheating otherwise he's gonna have to face trial; he might even go to prison! So be aware Italy's history is repeating again. Dictatorship and facism are around the coner.
sally madiotto, Treviso Italy

Though a Prodi government runs the risk of failing as it did the last time it will be better than re-electing such a leader as Berlusconi. It's time we Italians stop the bleeding so the world can stop laughing at a country that has become a joke. God help us.
Camillo, New York

One question for your Prodi supporters: have they lost their memory on top of their good sense? The Berlusconi government is the first one to reduce taxes (albeit by too little) and increse pensions for the most needy. For this alone it deserves re-election, but it is also the first italian government to have repudiated and actively condemned the pervasive power of the communists in Italy. As for Prodi, he is the communist straw man, the one who can get them elected because they would otherwise never reach the majority. Prodi is the Juda's goat of italian poltics.
F Montanari, Vero Beach, Florida, USA

True, both candidates are playing a part in order to conquer the moderate, center oriented voters. Others, like Lega and the likes, need desperately to make some noise to emerge and are ready to everything to gain visibility on the medias. But the main issue is that in the last five years, Italy has become more divided and polarised: politically, socially, geographically, thus reversing a historical trend dating from the beginning of the 20th century. People who will vote for Prodi want to be politically active in a united country, where everyone may speak with each other away from social and political ramparts and geographical divides and thus work it out together.
Piero Budinich, Trieste, Italy

As the famous writer Umberto Eco recently declared "Berluscony is a danger for democracy". Pheraps only in Thailand there is such a big concentration of power in the hands of a single man (j remember that Berlusconi ranks no. 37 on the list of the richest men of the world made by the magazine Forbes).
Andrea Rota, Bergamo, Italy

A view from the south of Italy. Here in Apulia, the once-thriving industrial base, founded on light engineering, footwear and textiles firms, seems to have almost given up in the face of the economic onslaught from China, which is of course strong in all three areas. They appear to have cut back most on research and development, always low in the black-market sweatshops that once abounded here, and this lack of R&D just further reduces their long-term chances of recovery. Every time I travel back to Britain (as Apulia can no longer provide the income it once could) I talk to locals who have fled to England to find work, mostly the more intelligent and energetic ones, and they cannot envisage going back to live in Apulia again, where jobs are maddeningly still seen as favours to be handed down to allies, leading to a surfeit of people doing the wrong job. Now this is not necessarily Berlusconi's fault, but his 5 years in power have coincided with this huge decline in the region's fortunes, and he seems to have no answers, his political campaign tellingly being based more on personalities than on policies. But are the opposition capable of forming a viable government? One has one's doubts...
Anthony Green, Bari, Italy

Italians should be concerned that 10 years later the same two unconvincing leaders are, once again, facing each others. I left Italy in 1997 and it does make me wonder that no real alternative, new comer or new idea either seem to have emerged in all this time. The Italian system and structure is not equipped to really evolve and transform. Same faces, same language, same insane priorities (conflict of interest, off colours remarks & jokes, charisma or dullness) are dangerously making Italy fall behind. No one seems to talk about real issues. Hope I am wrong, but it feels like these elections, no matter which side you stand, have already been lost by Italians.
Andrea Alfieri, London

Unfortunately many Italians fear of the return of communists in Italy, and therefore there is a possibility that Berlusconi will be re-elected, as the opposition doesn't give italy a great alternative.
dario, modena, italia

i do not find the prime minister centre right, the man has shown to many italiens that he is verging on the far right! The man serves himself and should have never been alowed to govern italy, and as an italien voter, i will certainly not helping him get back in!
Jon Heywood, Telford, UK

I am an italian grad-student at the moment in Canada for a Master. I was talking with a professor in my department and speaking of Berlusconi he knew about his bad jokes around the world and particularly the one to Mr.Schulz and the nazists. I felt ashamed to be italian and I really hope in a political change after the next elections. Ciao
Francesco Cortini, Edmonton,Canada

Through the media, the world has found out how ridiculous Mr Berlusconi has been over the past few years; in both his national and international "gaffes" he has really managed to throw discredit on this country - which was "once" an economic power. But that is nothing, as we, on our hand have not been as lucky as to find out his incompetence through the media: we only need to count the money that is left in our wallets at the end of the month. And it's not funny.
Giovanni, Milan

The one word I would never use to describe Silvio Berlusconi is a "failure"! Starting out in the property development business with some financial help from his bank manager father, he achieved his first millions in building a residential area outside Milan. To the benefit of all Italians, he then started a commercial TV which did not exist here. (In fact the best programmes on the RAI TV before it faced competition from Berlusconi were the ads!) I am convinced that Berlusconi is trying to do for his country what he managed so successfully to do for himself. The achievements of his Government in only five years are amazing. I have lived in Italy now for 36 years during which time there has never been a stable government like this one able to make the reforms so desperately needed.
Gina Phillips, Rome, Italy

Let's be honest, ok? All the things Berlusconi said he'd done for us Italians, he'd done them solely for his own benefit. And *that* is, I'm afraid, a fact. On top of that, he keeps doing things that would embarass any normal man, but not him! Personally, I'm ashamed he represents my country, then again, who am I to say such things? Only a young (unemployed) Italian who still lives with her parents and hopes to find a job someday. I just hope Italians do choose to NOT to vote for him again. I know Prodi and his allies are boring and might have opposite opinions on major issues, but still, Prodi *knows* what he's doing and at least he doesn't do stupid things such as tactless and tasteless remarks and gestures (ie when he insulted Finland or Germany) which may turn Italy into Europe's laughing stock.
Serena, milano

The centralised Italian state, created 140 years ago, was a dreadful mistake. Italy should do now what Switzerland did back then - federalise completely and adopt direct democracy. Then it might even become as prosperous as its federal democratic neighbour to the north. To his credit, Mr Berlusconi has put through legislation enabling federalisation to take place.
Stephen, Australia

The only difference is the left already lost an election five years ago. Hopefully they have learned something from that. Now it's the right's turn to get a lesson. Politicians never learn unless they lose.
Marco, Bologna, Italy

Prodi might look quiet but what he says is what counts. It's showing politics is a serious matter. I think it's an important message after 5 long years of Berlusconi's stupidity and nonsense. 5 years ago some people thought that Berlusconi, despite his foolish behavious, was still the right person for the country. Now many of those people have the impression Berlusconi is not only a clown but also ineffective. His 5 years have been disappointing and the stability of his government almost useless. What a waste of time and resources.
Davide Puddu, Birmingham, UK

The situation here is very difficult to read for Italians and non Italians alike because its like has never been seen before - an unscrupulous media magnate who has not fully cleared his name in the lawsuits against him and thus less than fully qualified to legislate vs. a lacklustre academic heading a potentially divided coalition. There is little doubt, though, that Berlusconi has not only damaged the Italian economy but, more important, has wreaked havoc with its Constitution and basic institutions so Lord help us if he gets back in.
Donald Bathgate, Florence, Italy

It is so sad to see a weak alternative to Mr Berlusconi.Italian politics is like being at the circus.I would like to see a stronger statesman, something we have not seen in a long time. I am proud thet Italians, regardless of the inadequate politicians that have rappresented them in the past, get on with their lives better then any other people in Europe.
Antonio Capodici, Roma,Italy

I live in South Italy and, to be frank, I have seen nothing of the beautiful figures praised by Mr. Berlusconi and close allies. He has done nothing to make this part of the Country safer and, as a consequence, more alluring for investors. Well, to say the truth, Mr. Berlusconi has been a bad paragon of virtues himself. Things are not better if we give a look at the other coalition. That being said, in my humble opinion, Italians have really a lot of problems to make a sensible choice in these hard times.
Domenico Ummarino, Caivano (Naples) - Italy

Prodi may be lack-lustre but his stint at the European Commission has really been an excellent learning curve and he seems to be more solid and more trustworthy. Mr Berlusconi is a consummate master at theatre and one should not be fobbed by his charisma. What Italy needs is an honset statesman with impeccable credentials not a showman. There lies the difference
Pancha Chandra, Brussels, Belgium

it seems to me that italy has been largely successful country over the years, even having the fifth largest economy in the world in the eigthties , without having any memorable leaders at all . It almost seems that politicians and leadership is generally incidental in Italian life....
nick goodey, neqw york

Neither the economic results left over by the past 5-years center-right party rule, nor the political plans indicated by the same party would enforce any enthusiasm in voting for them. On the other side, neither the weakness of the left-party coalition, and the incoherence of their main political plans do attract the hearts. So, who to chose? I will go to the root values pursued by the two parties (theoretically): one is toward liberism and personal responsibility, the other for family welfare and labour state-protection. Hoping to be right, I think the main priority to get out of the mud is the first of the two.
marco bonvini, Milan, Italy

The sad reality is that no one is better than the other albeit for different reasons. One thing is clear, Berlusconi is a failure and to vote him in again would be masochist in the extreme for most Italians. On the other hand Prodi will have not a chance to govern Italy either as his coalition is held together only by its hatred of Berlusconi. When in government it is highly unlikely that they will able to agree on much just like last Prodi's government. Failure is really the only option for Italy!
Antonio, UK

Does anybody remember how Berlusconis success story began ? A rotten political system let him buy whatever media power he wanted (TV-stations, newspapers, magazines). Soon after the system collapsed and left him standing in the rain. There was no center-right movement anymore, he had to fill the gap and did it with his fan club. Brain washing worked pretty well, and his self-rescue couldn't have been better. And what happenend to Italy ? None of his business, I'm afraid.
hans bernbach, Lugano, Switzerland

I'm an Italian national living in Malta. With reference to the article, I would think that Prodi's "calm and serious" approach is exactly what Italian politics needs after so many years of Mr. Berlusconi¿s Tele-sales approach to politics. Mr. Berlusconi has delivered a labour market that is more fragile and vulnerable than ever before, a weaker economy, social polarization, a threatened environment and a rapid reduction of R&D. Prof. Prodi is capable of capturing the desire of Italians at this moment for some normality, for a sense of reality - something that seems to have disappeared with Mr. Berlusconi "show-time" politics. Perhaps Prof. Prodi could have made an effort to be more entertaining, to add a little Razz-ma-tazz to his show, but I honestly think that Italians have had enough of that. As the Italian journalist Montanelli said, ¿Berlusconi was a necessary medicine for Italy: once you tried it you wouldn¿t think of taking it again¿.
Stefano Moncada, Gharghur, Malta

Most Italian voters in favour of Berlusconi are, today, ashamed to recognize that they have been 'conned' by a much needed enthusiast, forceful leader. A need shared by other Western leading economic powers, as the trend has shown. And the actual trend is showing that a few of those economic powers have very little chance of getting the right leader. What choice is left?
Anna-Maria Pera, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Well,we have come to a point in which we would be even envy of your margaret tathcher !! we are having a clown and a priest running for election ! god save the country.... i have been always wondering how this country has always managed to produce the most intelligent and sofisticated designer,scientist,chefs and so many great brains...but the most awful politicians...
alberto musacchio, perugia italy

What charisma? What humour? I hope he will lose general election and Italy will become a country like other european countries!
alberto proietti, roma

My daughter lives in Italy and she mixes with people who would not have voted for Berlusconi last time round. According to her the greatest danger is that these people will just not vote as they do find Prodi boring and lacking in charisma. Italy's failing economy does not reflect the thriving black economy that exists there which means that many people are in theory poor but in reality are doing OK.
Lyn Jacomb, Brussels Belgium

I am Italian but I have been working in London for over ten years. Mr Berlusconi is a great business man, amusing, successful, rich, but he has dramatically failed to deliver what he promised. Economical recovery, reduction of unemployment, reduction of public debt. Arguably his most famous promise was 1 million new jobs! Well, actually Italy lost almost a million jobs! All Italian multinationals have gone bust (Parmalat, Fiat, Cirio just to mention a few) amidst international scandals and bribery trials. The surviving Italian companies are inefficient, badly run and lost competitiveness especially against emerging markets. As a result, Italy seems to be doomed to loose a place in the G8. But most important Berlusca had time, political stability, and resources to fix the problems.
Andrea Ceccanti, London United Kingdom

Let us hope this is the death knell for spin and the triumph of substance. It's long overdue. DW.
David Wilde, Bathgate EH48 4HL. UK.

My fiancee and I keep residence in Milan, though we wish to spend time away from Italy for at least the next few years due to growing costs and difficulty. Times are tough, everything is expensive, and during our last trip home, we were shocked to see more beggars on the street than ever before. Italy needs change desperately, though it seems rather clear that the decision has to be made between the devil and the deep blue sea. The diary failed to point out that many Italians feel troubled by the prospect of having to choose between the lesser of two evils - either gentleman would probably do them over sourly over one point or another. Neither have presented an economic plan that instills confidence in the general population. It'll be a close and tough call to make.
Ju-Lee Sandhu, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Mr Berlusconi was the only Prime Minister in post war Italy to have a majority bigger enough to push through reforms that are deperatly needed for this once great nation. Instead he passed laws that benefited him and his business associates. He also gvae to much power to Lega Nord, one of his partners in coalition. Lega Nord also scared off the liberlising men in the orignal government with their anti-european and neo-fascist views. The current oppostion is not a great alternative, with incoherant policies and infighting with the opposition coalition. Mr Prodi who was PM during the late 90s also failed to inspire reforms and leadership. Hopefully he learnt something from being the President of the EU....
Alistair Peckham, Varese, Italy

I used to live in Bologna, in the north of Italy for 5 years and in London for 2 years.Now i'm living in the south of italy. I totally agree with lyn jacomb from Brussels. The italians are well, even in the south. There is much of concealed labour.People take advantages from the government system claiming benefits.Every family owns a house.Italians have a high standard of living, all the young have a car, 2 cell mobiles and go to restaurants at weekend on regular base.The only thing that has changed lately is that people don't spend, as before, much money on expensive cloths, at last!!Better being than appearing! The perception of Italy abroad is comletely different.I was really concerned about the sort of italy during my stay in london until July 2004 when I read english press.Berlusconi hasn't done much during this 5 years, but the international set up has been very negative though.Regarding Prodi,if his fractious coalition won the elections, they would last less time and would do less than the centre-right. I wish there was a Blairlike leader in the centre-left coalition, we need a real leader no a weak one professor as Mr Prodi and only ONE leader in a homogeneous coalition. However, whatever will be the outcome of the elections Italy will survive.

I am a british national who has lived in Italy for the past 13 years. Having read a number of the comments above I can only agree with those whose outlook for the future is, unfortunately, very bleak. On the one hand Mr Berlusconi has already proven in his 5 year tenure unable (or unwilling) to face up to the problems in Italy and to combat them with adequate fiscal and socio-economic policies that would allow a reprise in the economic situation. On the other hand Mr Prodi is head of a loose coalition of parties that range from the communist to the centre left with little hope of agreeing on a definite set of (undoubtedly hard-hitting, unpopular and definitely not "socialist") policies that would give the sorely needed stability that Italy needs. Both have been involved in various scams of a political or business nature and there is little chance that they have the integrity required to clean up the corruption that is still endemic to most civil and political entities in the country. All in all a pretty bleak picture
Juan Santiago, Bergamo Italy

Unfortunately the writers above are right
franco manzoni, Bologna

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