The lower house of the Italian Parliament on Saturday voted overwhelmingly in favor of an austerity plan aimed at heading off the crisis in the country's sovereign debt. The vote has a more immediate effect for Italians: it clears the way for the expected resignation of the country's long-serving and colorful Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
What a decade-long torrent of tabloid coverage couldn't do to Berlusconi, the European debt crisis finally did. He gleefully batted away years' worth of questions about his behavior, including inquiries into his business activities and the mingling of his media empire with his political career, as well as repeated and sordid flare-ups from his apparently active love life. Those included reports last year of the prime minister's interest in "bunga bunga" parties, featuring the attentions of young women and, apparently, whatever else Silvio wanted.
But he could not escape the crisis that is rocking European financial markets and government, The New York Times reported.
The lower house passed the measures on Saturday by a vote of 380 to 26, a day after they were approved by the Senate, trying to keep a step ahead of market pressures that sent borrowing rates on Italian bonds skyrocketing last week to levels that have required other euro zone countries to seek bailouts.
The vote, and Mr. Berlusconi’s expected resignation, come amid the biggest crisis facing the European Union in decades, in which the power of financial markets has upended traditional democratic processes.
Pressured by European leaders struggling to shore up the euro against speculative attacks, Prime Minister George A. Papandreou of Greece resigned last week to make way for a technocrat-led unity government. Mr. Berlusconi was expected to do the same, a rare about-face for a leader known for his perseverance and his refusal to bow to critics.
The resignation will prove a political sea change for Italians. The government led by a gleeful billionaire is now expected to follow the lead of Mario Monti, a former commissioner of the European Union and a "technocrat," as the BBC labeled him.
Supporters from Berlusconi's party chanted his name before the Parliamentary vote, The Times reported, while outside, various outlets noted that protesters were less kind, chanting "Bye, bye Silvio," and "Resign."
What's next for Berlusconi? In the immediate future, he's got criminal liability to worry about, Claudio Lavagna writes at NBC News' World Blog. Though Lavagna also notes that Berlusconi used his time in office productively, potentially lessening his exposure if some of the most salacious stories about his predilections turn out to be true.
Berlusconi is still a defendant in three different trials. He is being charged with corruption, abuse of office, and famously for having slept with a 17-year old prostitute dubbed “Ruby the heart-stealer.”
Should he be found guilty of all charges, he could potentially spend more than 15 years in prison, and say goodbye to 'bunga bunga'.
And yet Berlusconi might not be losing any of those three hours of sleep over it.
While in office, his government lowered the statute of limitations, effectively the expiration date for legal proceedings, prompting suspicions that it was yet another attempt to save himself from his legal woes. And it might have worked.
What no one should expect, says Nick Squires at The Telegraph, is Silvio fading gently into the night, good, bunga-filled, or otherwise. He's even floated the occasional remark suggesting his electoral appetite is still not sated. Laying out a scenario in which a Berlusconi crony would "keep his seat warm," much as Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is seen to have done for Vladimir Putin (another friend of Silvio), the Italian weekly L'Espresso warns: "Berlusconi-ism is finished, as is the Berlusconi government, but Berlusconi himself is not."
More from The Telegraph:
Assessing the legacy of his three terms in office, the magazine published a "Berlusconi alphabet" of key words and terms. 'A' was Antigua, where the billionaire media baron has a luxury villa. 'B' was for Bunga Bunga, after Mr Berlusconi's notorious sex parties. 'N' was for Noemi (Letizia, the teenage underwear model whose 18th party he attended in 2009, prompting his furious wife to sue for divorce). And 'Z' was for Zero, which the magazine assessed as "the country's growth rate during the Berlusconi era."
"I can't see him slipping into the shadows as Gordon Brown did, it's not in his nature," said Professor Christopher Duggan, an expert on Italian politics and history from Reading University.
"He's still got his media empire, and a vast army of people who are absolutely committed to him and will do all they can to protect him. I don't think we've seen the last of him by any means."
So, as the rest of the world waits to see if a dash of austerity in Rome can right the listing ship of European debt, and the European and American banks whose fates are tied to it, Silvio Berlusconi plans to resume control of his soccer team, AC Milan. Compared to the other world leaders who have fallen from power this year, and his trials notwithstanding, that's a pretty soft landing after all.
For a definitive take on the mood of Berlusconi in unapologetic, devil-may-care form, see Devin Friedman's deliriously profane and delightful 2010 GQ feature, and Ariel Levy's examination of his hedonism in The New Yorker in May 2011. (Thank you, Longform.org for those links.)