In his first 100 days in office, Silvio Berlusconi may have done the impossible: to a degree unprecedented in modern Italian history, he asserted control over this seemingly ungovernable nation. The opposition parties are mired in squabbling, and Berlusconi, now prime minister for the third time since 1994, has an approval rating of 55 percent—higher than Britain’s Gordon Brown, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy or Spain’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
Such tough tactics could give Berlusconi the cover to tackle some of Italy’s deeper issues. Italians now pay some of the highest taxes in Western Europe, at 43 percent, and have some of the lowest salaries—leading to widespread tax evasion. Public debt remains at more than 100 percent of GDP; servicing it costs Italy 5 percent to 6 percent of GDP annually, says Bank of America’s Gilles Moec. Berlusconi has pledged to reduce spending (in contrast to his first term), but doing so will make it harder to fulfill a pledge to cut taxes or to stimulate growth. Yet Berlusconi must figure out a way. Italians like him now, but what they really want is economic stability. Cleaning up trash and harassing immigrants won’t be enough.