Ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgrade of Italy’s credit rating, which is not devoid of political motivation, explicitly refers to the international credibility of the country and the stability of its government. However, I believe that its criticism is mainly based on the fact that Italy has entered into a period of recession and is having to raise taxes to reimburse its debts. Unfortunately, this is a recipe that does not bode well for the future, which will likely be worse than the present.

However, there is judgement of Italy that is even more important: the judgement of its own citizens. Without a doubt, the main problem identified in this judgement is the Prime Minister. For a large number of Italians, Berlusconi represented their hopes for political stability and economic dynamism. Today these hopes have died, crushed by a jumble of broken promises, hitches in implementation, a slew of diverse scandals, inappropriate behaviour and a worrying lack of prudence. Today the main problem for Italy is the end of the Berlusconi era.

Everyone knows — including the close friends of the government leader — that his time has come to an end. Berlusconi will have to leave the stage, but no one yet knows how to turn a new page. Some are hoping that Il Cavaliere’s story will come to a close in court, in the wake of a trial for corruption, fraud and immorality. Others are expecting a decisive message addressed to parliament by Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano.

However, both of these solutions will only serve to highlight the powerlessness of Italian democracy, and its inability to tackle this issue with the tools of democracy. Yes, Berlusconi has to go, but in a manner that does not undermine the constitution and one that will rescue the aspects of his political adventure that are worth preserving.

Give Italian public opinion a say

I am thinking notably of his party. The disappearance of a major political force, which was elected on three occasions by a majority of Italians, is not in anyone’s interest. To avoid this collapse, and to leave a lasting trace of his time on the planet, Berlusconi should announce that he will not be a candidate to lead the next government and that elections will be held in the spring of 2012 [Editor’s note: in Italy, general elections are always held in the spring].

In the seven or eight months that separate us from the next election, such a decision could have similar impact to Zapatero’s announcement that he would seek a third mandate in Spanish elections on 20 November. In Spain, this strategy has provided the foundation for a rapprochement between the socialist majority and the right-wing opposition on a certain number of questions of national interest, and it has also given the socialist candidate — Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba — the time he needs to consolidate his role as leader of the party.

If Berlusconi takes a decision along these lines, it will be of immense benefit to Italy, which, as a result, would be perceived by Europe and the world as a country that is capable of organising its future in a rational manner, especially if it opts to change (though I have few illusions about the likelihood of such a move) a very bad electoral law.

It would also enable Italy to once again allow public opinion, which is currently restricted to expressions of anger and exasperation, to have a say. It would give the political parties time to prepare for an election, and finally, it would enable Italy to show its citizens that that it is possible to resolve their problems with the natural mechanisms of democracy. And Berlusconi would be able to say — not without justification — that he should be given credit for part of this change.