It's late at night, and you'd expect to find the man worn out and depressed. Instead, Silvio Berlusconi's voice coming over the telephone line is lively, even if his words are clear and unambiguous.
"As soon as the stability pact is approved in Parliament, I will resign. And seeing as there are no other potential governing coalitions, the only possibility I see are elections in early February elections in which I will no longer be the candidate."
In the words of the man known as Il Cavaliere, Berlusconi's decision to step aside is complete and definitive. "The center-right candidate will be [current Freedom Party chief and former Justice Minister] Angelino Alfano. He is accepted by everyone, and it would be a mistake to taint him now in trying to imagine a new [transitional] government headed by him."
It seems impossible to imagine that Berlusconi is really ready to pull out definitively from politics, but he confirms it to me several times, as he did earlier in a private meeting with the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano, who considers the resignation already handed in.
"First thing is that we must give an immediate response to the markets: we can wait no longer to approve the agreed-upon measures. I made a commitment to Europe to do so, and I want to maintain that promise before leaving. But now, I make a plea to all parties, center-left and center-right, to pass the bill as quickly as possible, and then I will resign."
Early elections, however, are not automatic. It is the head of state Napolitano who has the final word, after meeting with all top leaders in Parliament. It would also be unprecedented in Italy to have national elections in the heart of the winter. Still, Berlusconi repeats that there is no other realistic scenario of a ruling coalition or transitional government. "The arithmetic tells me there is no way other than elections."
When asked about what has been called a "market coup," Berlusconi insists that Italy should see the reforms imposed as an opportunity. "The markets push us to push through the reforms that we were never able to do, those liberalizations that I have always put in my platforms but against which I have always found so much resistance."
Acts of Betrayal
The Prime Minister is not so sunny, however, when I raise the subject of his political allies who pulled their support in Parliament, thus forcing him to resign. "Something unbelievable happened: I was betrayed by those who I have carried in my heart through a lifetime. I'm thinking of [Roberto] Antonione, and I still can't believe it, thinking about all that I did for him. He even made me his daughter's godfather. It's incredible: I'm his daughter's godfather, and he betrays me. I can't believe my eyes. I asked him to meet, but he was scared to come see me and disposed of it all with a letter. The others I won't even talk about."
Asked what he would do once he resigned, the 75-year-old said he would be the "founding father of my party ... and maybe return to being president of the AC Milan" soccer team, which he owns.
Berlusconi denies reports that his children had urged him to fight to hold on to the Prime Minister post. "My children are very happy that I am leaving politics, hoping to be able to wake up in the morning and not have to read newspapers around the world full of attacks against me. And they also know that I am tired."
There is silence as Berlusconi takes a long pause before continuing. "I am tired of not being able to impose my will and not being able to push the policy that I would like. I am more powerful as a free citizen than as Prime Minister. I was reading a book on the letters between Mussolini and [his mistress] Claretta, and he tells her at a certain point, 'You don't understand that I don't count at all, all I can do is hand out favors.' I felt like I ended up in the same situation."
As I point out the context of a fascist dictatorship, he interrupts: "Of course, I am not a dictator, even if you [in the press] have written that I am for years. What I mean is that the founding fathers of Italy, precisely out of fear that history would repeat itself, went too far in weakening the executive role. I ask you: Can you be the head of the government if you can't make the Minister of the Economy carry out the economic policy that you believe in?"
Speaking of Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, a longtime ally with whom Berlusconi has clashed repeatedly in recent months: "The personal relationship isn't bad," Berlusconi said. "But then at the end he does whatever the heck he pleases."
Berlusconi closes by saying he is consoled by knowing that he was Italy's "longest-serving Prime Minister in history." But I interrupt to correct him, pointing out that Giovanni Giolitti had served longer back in the 19th century. I also note that he would have surpassed Giolitti if he had held on until the end of the legislative session in 2013. "Yes, I meant postwar history," Berlusconi says. He is quiet for a moment, then adds, "This [record] of Giolitti, I didn't know about. That's a pity, really a pity. Well, good night."
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