Paving the way for the Red Brigades

The economy is failing, unemployment is up. No wonder Italians are losing patience with Silvio Berlu

Florence: a poster on a wall shows a group of partisans crouching, rifles raised, in a doorway. Above, the slogan: "Remember the partisans of 1944 who liberated Florence!" Below, to make the point still clearer: "Fight against the neo-fascism of Berlusconi as the partisans fought against the fascism of Mussolini!"

The poster is the work of the Italian Party of Marxism-Leninism (Florence Section). The Marxist-Leninists' call for armed struggle plays to a malign tradition of contemporary Italian politics which, when it does not end in death, ends in dead ends.

A group with the name of the Red Brigades, the 1970s/1980s Leninist terror group, claimed responsibility for the murder in March this year of Marco Biagi, the labour law expert who was advising the government on flexibility in the jobs market. The moderate left, strongly anti-terrorist, is none the less taking to the streets. Spring saw huge union-led demonstrations in Rome and other cities. Leftist intellectuals, most notably the film director Nanni Moretti (whose latest work is The Son's Room), have also convened mass gatherings.

In July and early this month, the politicians - deputies and senators alike - also went into the piazza, to express outrage against the governing right-wing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi's government has devoted most of its legislative time to putting laws on the statute book that directly benefit the prime minister by immunising him from criminal prosecution. Three of the charges that stand against Berlusconi allege tax evasion through the use of offshore accounts: in September last year, a law was passed which gives an amnesty for offshore tax evasion. The charges against him also allege false accounting practices: a law of October 2001 decriminalises many false accounting offences, especially in privately held companies - such as Berlusconi's own main financial vehicle, Fininvest.

Berlusconi controls the three main private TV channels through his Mediaset company. As prime minister, he also has a large say in the policies of the three RAI state TV channels. He promised during his election campaign to deal with the vast conflicts of interest that his media ownership throws up. In February this year, such a law was passed - but it merely prohibits him from managing his companies, not owning them. Now his main companies, Fininvest and Mediaset, are run by his eldest son, Piersilvio, and his eldest daughter, Marina.

The most pressing case against him, before a court in Milan, concerns allegations about the bribery of judges during a struggle for control of a company in the Eighties. In the closing weeks of the parliament, before the summer break, Berlusconi's majority all but pushed through a law under which an accused can challenge a judge on the grounds that he or she is politically biased against the accused. Once passed, Berlusconi's lawyers will seek to have the Milan judge dismissed - and the case is likely to go the way of the previous cases, running out of time under the statute of limitations, and thus failing.

It was the nakedness of this latest effort that prompted the left to take to the streets. The opposition had used every parliamentary device to stop the law. Berlusconi tried to get parliament to sit through August to have it passed - unheard of in a country where cities are deserted in August, and a step too far even for his supporters. But he will return to the battle on 3 September, when the senate resumes.

It is difficult to think of another developed and democratic country where such manoeuvrings would be accepted with such apparent equanimity as they seem to be by most Italians. They voted in Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, the Casa delle Liberta, with a healthy majority 15 months ago, and a majority of them support him still. Why?

The first reason is the debilitated state of the left. In the mid-Nineties, it had managed to patch together an alliance - the Ulivo, or Olive Tree - that spanned on one side the Rifondazione Comunista, the Leninists in the former Communist Party who refused to become social democrats, through to Christian Democrats who could not stomach Berlusconi. It won power on that basis and hung together for five years. It was a good enough government - relatively uncorrupt, capable of some difficult reforms - but it was racked by dissension and personal jealousies, and in opposition has proved incapable of any unity beyond a frustrated hatred of the right.

The second is more sinister - the marriage of media and political power that Berlusconi epitomises is actually working to suppress informed public opinion or concern. This is hard to prove: the state TV services still give news and opinion, including opposition opinion (the Berlusconi-owned channels rather less). Polling organisations have shown that much more time is given to the government and governing parties than to the opposition, and that news and current affairs are more concerned with leisure and style than hitherto. But isn't that what people want? Aren't these international trends? Don't governments always get more media time, simply because they do things?

The trends seem to point to a creeping trivialisation of the news, as if a minister were asked to explain a policy and he replied, "But that's boring! Look at that pretty girl!"

In fact, Italian ministers do not behave like ministers elsewhere - certainly not in the generally buttoned-up style of British and German politicians. The deputy economy minister, Gianfranco Micciche, demanded that a Sicilian theatre be closed after it had satirised the government: he is now under suspicion of buying cocaine from a pusher who allegedly brought it into the economics ministry. The minister of finance, Giulio Tremonti, issued a report earlier this month blaming - with many insulting phrases - the previous government for all of Italy's economic woes, 15 months after he took office. Umberto Bossi, the minister in charge of reforms and leader of the Northern League, one of the coalition parties, seems licensed to say anything he likes - calling the EU "fascist", the opposition "communist" and justifying Berlusconi's legal manoeuvres on the grounds not that they are right, but that he has the power to do it.

Berlusconi himself sets the tone. He has called for the sacking of two combative RAI journalists, has denied that the Mafia is a problem, has made a rude sign to an opposition politician behind his back and showers the leaders he meets with expensive gifts. He fulfils the office of foreign minister as well as prime minister because, he says, he enjoys it and "it's good to get to know other leaders". He makes no distinction between his private and public offices, holding government meetings at his private apartment or villa, welcoming business contacts to the Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister's official residence. People say of him: "He's so rich he doesn't have to steal any more"; or "So what if he got round the law, doesn't everyone?"

But his time of popularity is running out. Italy now lags behind all other European Union states, its economy is flat and its prospects for growth almost nil. Tax collection is down and unemployment up: the reforms that Berlusconi promised have barely materialised; the Central Bank disputes all of the government's forecasts and figures. The popular president, Carlo Ciampi, is visibly concerned: his speeches on conflict of interest and the need for democratic observance are increasingly pointed.

The dire state of the economy is likely to cost Berlusconi the support of business people who saw him as an entrepreneurial and dynamic leader, willing to cut through bureaucratic tangles and rigid labour regulations.

A government of the right need not, if it has strong nerves, fear left-wing terrorism or street violence if it is civil and efficient. When it is neither - indeed, when it can increasingly be seen as a screen for placing its leader above the law - then violence can be justified as the last refuge of the insulted citizen. In destroying civility, the concept that Rome itself was instrumental in giving to the world, it seeds explosions.