After Italy's Senate passed a vote of confidence in Enrico Letta's government, it looked as if Silvio Berlusconi had been defeated. But perhaps the whole performance was just that - a performance.
Another big show: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi knows how to craft a good story - and, as his stage, he uses the Senate floor. After building up tension for days, the showdown between him and Prime Minister Enrico Letta was supposed to come on Wednesday (02.10.2013).
But just before noon, Berlusconi stepped out of his role as the bad guy, let the pistol fall from his hand and gave the young sheriff his blessing. Letta can carry on governing - thanks to Berlusconi.
Defeat or trick?
Perhaps that's exactly what Berlusconi had planned, and the split in his own party - between Berlusconi loyalists ready to vote no and a group of dissidents who were prepared to support Letta - was nothing but a hoax. That's not out of the question. As an old professional and master of communication, Berlusconi knows all the tricks. Over the last few weeks, he's dominated Italian media with his U-turns, implying to the people that the fate of Italy is indissolubly linked to his own.
So now, in spite of Berlusconi's threats, the government has not fallen. Critics of Berlusconi are celebrating what they consider a victory and are predicting the end of his party, the People of Freedom (PdL). The left-wing La Repubblica newspaper talks of "chaos" and says that "Berlusconi has lost control of the party." People are already suggesting new names for the PdL's successor.
But not all Italians agree. Gianni Barbacetto of the independent Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper asks what Berlusconi stood to gain from a government crisis that climaxed just two days ahead of his hearing in a Senate committee. That committee will decide on Berlusconi's immunity following his conviction for corruption - and whether he should lose his seat.
"If the government had fallen, Berlusconi would be out of the picture," says Barbacetto. "This way, he still holds Italy as his political hostage."
Berlusconi's party remains in the government coalition with Letta's Democrats, and perhaps the Senate committee will show its gratefulness on Friday by not throwing him out. Perhaps Berlusconi wanted to keep up the pressure on Letta right up until this important meeting.
An era not yet over
"Berlusconi, after all, is still Berlusconi. He'll find a way out," says Pino Fabbri, who has a shop selling shoes in Milan. A customer in a dark red coat is certain that "the era of the cavaliere" (as Berlusconi is known) is not yet over.
If new elections were held under the existing rules, which tend to prevent a clear majority in the Senate, Berlusconi would have a good chance of being voted in again. President Giorgio Napolitano wants to change the electoral law as soon as possible, but similar calls have been ringing out for years, and nothing has been done yet.
At the very least, the Letta government is in office for now - and that has calmed the financial markets and Italy's partners in the EU. But it doesn't mean that Italy is out of the woods yet. The economy has been struggling to get into gear; ossified structures cannot be made more flexible because of powerful lobbies; and, in a new record, four out of ten young Italians are unemployed.
There's enough dynamite in the system, and Letta has not yet shown himself to be able to defuse it. Many Italians are disappointed in him and his coalition, with Berlusconi adding oil to the fire by accusing Democrats of refusing to reverse tax rises introduced by the previous government of Mario Monti.
Fact v. opinion
The myth of Berlusconi as the most powerful man in Italy seems to be alive and well among the people of the country - even if facts suggest otherwise. Berlusconi has been sentenced. He can choose between house arrest and social service. That sentence will start at the end of the month.
But facts don't seem to matter much in the surrealistic drama being played out on Italy's political stage. According to Barbacetto at Il Fatto Quotidiano, the media is partly to blame.
"Facts disappear and are replaced with opinion. Varied opinions are sold to us as pluralism and good reporting." Instead of concentrating on Berlusconi's criminal activities, Italian newspapers and television stations are more interested in their political consequences.
Letta wanted the vote of confidence in parliament to help release him from Berlusconi's stranglehold, but his victory could backfire. Nothing is for nothing in Italian politics, and now, Letta will have to pay a price for the support of 235 members of parliament. Perhaps Friday will be payday, when the Senate committee decides on Berlusconi's future, and thus, once more, that of the entire country's.