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Silvio Berlusconi: The Magic Is Gone

Editorial: The drubbing suffered in local elections shows Silvio Berlusconi increasingly obsessed with his own personal and judicial woes -- and losing touch with the sentiments of everyday Italians. La Stampa editor Mario Calabresi weighs in.

Mario Calabresi

"Silvio Berlusconi is a radioactive leader." This quip from a top member of President Barack Obama's administration at the conclusion of last week's G8 summit in Deauville, France, captured the feeling among many global leaders at the summit, who felt awkward dealing with the Italian prime minister who kept complaining about alleged judiciary conspiracies against him. "Radioactive" is also how a growing number of Italians view Berlusconi.

In local elections across Italy on Monday, all the major candidates who were personally supported by Berlusconi were soundly defeated. In Milan, the premier's hometown, Giuliano Pisapia is the first center-left candidate to be elected mayor in 17 years, beating the incumbent conservative mayor Letizia Moratti. A wind of change is blowing across the country.

Silvio Berlusconi has lost his famous "gut" connection with the majority of Italians. Since the beginning of his private television business in the 1980s, the current prime minister has always been able to understand and predict the Italians' moods and dreams. He promised Italians, first as his customers, then as his voters, that he would make their dreams come true. Now, something has changed, and it is not just a consequence of the judiciary investigations. Berlusconi no longer seems to understand what is happening in the minds and lives of the Italian people.

There is a deep financial crisis, people are spending their savings, and youth unemployment has increased dramatically. The electoral campaign of Berlusconi's coalition was all about justice reform. But this subject does not earn votes. For years, Mr. Berlusconi has won thanks for his promises to cut taxes. Now, he has convinced himself that his fellow Italians are as mad as he is at judges and at the political left.

So new and unpredictable candidates – who were pictured as too left wing and not expert enough -- have won. The government is the real loser. The Northern League party, the governing coalition's chief partner, is traditionally very strong in many northern Italy's cities and towns. Even there, the center-right coalition lost many of the local elections.

For years, Italian electoral campaigns have all revolved around Berlusconi and his promises, with his opponents left to try their best to campaign against them. This time, the roles were reversed. Mr. Berlusconi played against his opponents. For months, the center-right campaign aimed to destroy the images of its center-left opponents. In Milan, Mr. Pisapia was pictured as a close friend of gypsies and Muslims. The campaign was so heavy-handed that it had the effect to push away those centrist voters who five years ago helped Moratti win.

Speaking with the US President about his judiciary battles and insulting the judges was Mr. Berlusconi's final mistake. He could have tried to obtain Mr. Obama's commitment in Libya to help stem immigration from North Africa. The Italians would have appreciated that. Instead, he was set on his obsession.

Forecasting what will happen next is hard. Berlusconi is tough, with an endless capacity for self-reinvention – and he will fight until the end. But Monday's vote shows that he is no longer able to read the minds, guts, and hearts of the voters. Once this instinct is gone, a politician's career is inevitably arriving at its final lap.

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