Italy’s Berlusconi Is Forced to Back Down in Parliament—Will He Now Bow Out?

My piece on Berlusconi’s defeat in the Italian senate has just been published by Time.

On the surface, Italy‘s day ended as it began—with the country’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta in an uneasy, unstable alliance with the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. In a last minute speech in the Italian senate on Oct. 2, Berlusconi, the sex scandal-plagued former prime minister, declared he would support the government in a vote of confidence, bringing to an end a political crisis he had been instrumental in creating. “We have decided, not without inner turmoil, to vote in confidence of the government,” said Berlusconi. The final vote in the senate was 235 to 70 in favor of the government.

But the hours leading up to the vote had revealed deep fissures in Berlusconi’s once dominant People of Liberty party. On Oct. 1, several of his supporters—including his political heir Angelo Alfano—had openly broken with Berlusconi, declaring they would go against his wishes and vote in favor of the government. Last week, nearly all the senators in his party had threatened to resign if the senate stripped Berlusconi of his seat, a requirement following the one-year sentence for tax fraud handed out to Berlusconi in August. On the morning of the vote, 25 members of his party declared they would defect, forming an independent parliamentary group, and support Letta, almost certainly providing the current prime minister with the votes he need to survive.

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Berlusconi Rattles the Cage Again

My piece on the Italian government crisis has just been published by Time.

The news broke as Italians were sitting down for their Saturday dinner: Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-plagued media mogul, had ordered the ministers from his party to withdraw from Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government, effectively causing it collapse after five months of shaky coalition rule.

The news didn’t come as a complete surprise. The government — born from compromise after a hung parliament exhausted all other possibilities — has been unstable and ineffective since its formation. It came under further stress in August, when Italy’s supreme court confirmed a lower court’s decision to slap Berlusconi with a one-year sentence for tax fraud and a ban on holding political office for a yet-to-be determined period.

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Comedian Beppe Grillo on Italy’s Political and Economic Future

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my interview with Beppe Grillo.

You started as a comic.
I am still a comic, a fantastic one.

Were you always political?
No, I went through stages. First, a comic of jokes. Then I discovered jokes about politics. Then I discovered that politics passed through the products we have in our fridge, the yogurt that does 3,600 kilometers in a truck. Behind the everyday there was global politics. People came out of my shows saying, “He made us laugh, but also think. What should we do?” I tried to translate it into a political movement, the Meetups, which I took from Howard Dean. And we went ahead until the national elections, where we took 25 percent.

So it’s been an evolution, from jokester to political leader.
Exactly. But I’m always the same. My shows, now they call them speeches.

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Judges Reject Silvio Berlusconi’s Appeal, but His Political Appeal Endures

My piece on Silvio Berlusconi’s first definitive conviction has just been published by Time.

For the first time, after more than two decades of high-profile judicial battles, Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been definitively convicted of a crime. After seven hours of deliberation Thursday, the judges in Italy’s highest court emerged from their chamber to reject his final appeal on charges of tax fraud — and therefore confirming a one-year prison sentence, while sending back for a review a five-year ban from public office. He was originally sentenced last October.

Berlusconi was accused, along with three others, of using offshore companies to purchase the rights to American movies, reselling them to his media empire at markup in order to pay lower taxes. The sentence is a blow for the 76-year-old billionaire, but Berlusconi has made a career of proving the writers of his political obituaries wrong. Because of his age and the nature of his crime, Berlusconi is unlikely to see the inside of a prison cell. He will serve his sentence — originally for four years but commuted to one — either under house arrest or performing community service. While the ban on public office is under review, a process that could take months, the conservative politico will be able to keep his position as Senator and de facto head of his political party. “Politically, he’s still very much alive,” says Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist at Rome’s John Cabot University. “This will weaken him, but he can continue to be a leader, a symbol for the right.”

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Rome’s Graffiti Boom: Eternal City Finally Welcomes Street Art

My piece on Rome’s street art renaissance has just been published by Time.

Say the words “Roman art,” and your average listener will likely think of classical statues, ornate churches and the masterworks of Michelangelo, Caravaggio and their contemporaries. But to a select, but growing, few, that phrase summons something more contemporary: a growing body of street and graffiti art that has recently blossomed across the Eternal City.

The explosion has been sudden and noticeable, especially in the Ostiense neighborhood just outside the Aurelian Walls, where local support has transformed the former industrial area into a haven for muralists and poster artists. “When we were putting up the first works, they were looking at us like we were crazy,” says Francesco Dobrovich, project manger at NUfactory, a creative agency that has served as a broker between artists, local authorities and building owners. The boom has been fueled, at least in part, by the yearly Outdoor Festival, organized by NUfactory. Dedicated to street art, it attracts artists from across the continent. On the neighborhood’s major arterial the young Spanish artist Borondo has covered a gay cultural center with figures that seem to rise out of the neighborhood’s characteristic grime. On a side street, the windows of an apartment building have been painted into eerily empty eyes by the Bolognese artist Blu. On a wall outside a disco, the two-man RO.BO.COOP has pasted a remix of Sandro Bottocelli’s “Allegory of Spring,” in which all the figures in the Renaissance masterpiece are wearing surgical masks.

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Per Favore, Put the Euro to a Vote

My piece on why a referendum on the euro could be good for Italy has just been published by Time.

Of all the proposals put forward by the wild-haired comedian turned populist politician Beppe Grillo during the run-up to Italy’s elections in February, one stood out as the most controversial: his insistence that Italy hold a referendum on whether the country should give up the euro as its currency. After all, Rome had just spent the previous 15 months doing everything possible to hold on to the euro — tasking a technocratic government with implementing unpopular tax hikes and reforms, amid fears that an unruly exit by the euro zone’s third largest economy would bring down the entire currency union.

Grillo’s proposition was easily dismissed by the country’s political and media establishment, providing ammunition for opponents eager to paint him as dangerously misinformed. But Grillo was, in fact, tapping into something real. More than half of Italy’s voters chose candidates who explicitly rejected austerity measures widely seen to be imposed by German and other European bureaucrats and bankers.

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All the Old, Familiar Faces

My essay on Italy’s failed politics has just been published by Time.

For anyone who’s spent even a modest amount of time observing Italian politics, it was difficult to watch the aftermath of the country’s elections in February and not think of the classic Italian novel The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Set in 19th century Sicily, at a time of crisis, the book’s most famous sentence is an explanation delivered by a member of the island’s threatened nobility as to why he is joining the rebels: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

After more than a year of technocratic rule and an election in which voters expressed an impassioned desire for renewal, Italy is back in the hands of the politicians who have repeatedly failed to solve its problems. At 46, the country’s new Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, may be young by the standards of Italy’s ruling class, but he’s also a representative of Italy’s political elite, a high-ranking member of the center-left Democratic Party who accepted his first ministerial post in 1998. Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-plagued former Prime Minister, is back at the heart of power with his party’s secretary, Angelino Alfano, confirmed as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Letta will be dependent on the center-right Berlusconi’s support as he begins the task of trying to change a country dangerously stuck in its ways.

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In New Job, Italy’s First Black Minister Confronts Culture of Casual Racism

My piece on Italy’s first black minister has just been published by Time.

Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, proposes a law that would give citizenship to the children of immigrants if they are born on Italian soil. Under the current legislation, Italian nationality is passed on most commonly by blood, meaning the grandchildren of an Italian who has never set foot in the country has more rights to citizenship than someone who was born in Rome to foreign parents.

But even if Kyenge, 48, is unable to push a single piece of legislation through Parliament, she will already have secured an important legacy. Her April 27 appointment as Minister for Integration in Italy’s newly formed government has kicked off a much-needed discussion on race and immigration in a country that still struggles to come to terms with its rapid transformation.

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Italy’s Compromise Government Faces Uncertain Future, Plays Into Berlusconi’s Hands

My piece on Italy’s new government has just been published by Time.

It’s a solution that came after all other avenues were exhausted. On April 29, more than two months after the Italian elections, the country’s Parliament is expected to give life to a coalition government. Led by Enrico Letta, a high-ranking member of the center-left Democratic Party, Italy’s new administration will be dependent on support from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a man many in Letta’s party regard as the enemy.

Indeed, the deal comes only after efforts to find another solution exposed deep rifts in the Democratic Party. After an election in which no party was able to secure a clear victory, Pier Luigi Bersani, the party’s leader during the elections, fervently opposed any compromise with the sex-scandal-plagued media mogul, only to resign his position last week after repeatedly trying and failing to get his parliamentarians to vote for his candidates for the Italian presidency. “On any issue of relevance, the party is split,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “Letta might get more support from Berlusconi than his own party. That’s the paradox.”

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Francis’ New Papal Style: A Comparison with Benedict

My comparison of the new pope with the old has just been published by Time.

Pope Francis began his address during the March 19 ceremony marking his installation to the papacy as he has nearly every other public speech since his election just under a week ago: with a passing reference to his predecessor Benedict XVI. “We are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude,” said Francis. But even if hadn’t, the comparisons would be inevitable. At 76, Francis walks with a limp and needs help navigating the stairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica. But his presence at the pulpit projects far more strength than what the 85-year-old theologian who came before him was able to muster.

In February, Benedict became the first Pontiff in 600 years to resign from the papacy, ending a pontificate under which the Vatican was rocked by scandal and internal divisions. Francis, by contrast, in his every public word and repeated gestures of humility seems to offer the promise of renewal of the Church’s badly damaged image. “One of the great hopes that everyone has is that this will be the Pope who will get people to like the church again,” says Alexander Lucie-Smith, a parish priest in the U.K. and a writer for the Catholic Herald. “If he can change the mood music, that will be an incredibly important achievement.”

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