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Berlusconi’s Back?

Now that the orange-tinted, hair-transplanted, irrepressible john and convicted tax fraudster Silvio Berlusconi has decided, yet again, to run for Italy’s highest office, it may be time to examine what exactly is going on in the minds of that nation’s electorate.

When the dour technocrat Mario Monti first took office last November, with the aim of cleaning up the economic messes Berlusconi always refused to address, the new prime minister’s approval was at 62 percent. By the following September, that number had slipped by 10 points. Monti had, after all, pushed new legislation that made firing an employee in Italy far easier—and then, when this measure proved predictably unpopular among those limited numbers of workers who actually found jobs, Monti backed down: allowing the courts to overturn firings in certain instances. And Italian courts almost invariably favor the employee no matter what his on-the-job transgressions. These may and almost always do include one or all of the following: lying about sick leave, the sexual harassment of subordinates, general incompetence, and poor work performance. In Italy, when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette, which is almost invariably smoked indoors at your desk.

At the same time, Monti had made it if not impossible at least extremely expensive for part-time workers to find employment: a process that basically requires that ill-paid worker to hire an accountant to sort out the complications—and to pay more in taxes. In return for these sacrifices, that part-timer will only be permitted to be employed part-time for three years. Whenever an Italian politician attempts to smooth out legal difficulties, you can be certain of the outcome: everything is going to get that much more complicated. And costly. The nation appears to have borrowed its labor laws, new and old, from Cuba.

On the other hand, poor Monti was in a bind. With a public debt of 1.9 trillion euros (120 percent of its GDP) and just 57 percent of Italians employed, Monti had to do … something. So he did, and now suffers the consequences. Significantly, the moment Berlusconi announced his intentions of running for yet a fourth term and replacing him, Monti bowed out without a struggle. He will likely be gone by spring.

The 76-year-old billionaire who basically controls almost all the nation’s electronic media is, so it’s said, not doing well in the polls just yet. Voters in Italy, like those in the US, don’t have particularly long memories, but they do have selective ones. Many of them like Berlusconi’s rakish ways, so familiar and, they feel, so endearing. Others like him for the very same reasons Americans admire certain candidates: he’s rich, and it sort of doesn’t matter how he got that way.

For the moment, however, Italy is moderately safe from Silvio. It is, for example, instructive that right now he’s running behind a flamboyant candidate named Beppe Grillo. Grillo is famous for a number of accomplishments. He swam the Straits of Messina to launch his campaign. And in the 1980s he was the star of a TV show, each episode of which ended with Grillo smashing a computer (he didn’t like computers back then—this changed when he became a famous blogger).

Oh—and he’s a comedian. That more than anything probably qualifies him to run Italy.

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