The fall of Silvio Berlusconi, driven from power to the jeers of hostile demonstrators, is likely to trigger a major political upheaval in Italy like the one that brought him to power 17 years ago.
But while the ignominious end of the flamboyant media magnate, who was harried by crowds yelling “clown” when he resigned on Saturday, undoubtedly marks a turning point, what will follow is still deeply uncertain.
“Getting rid of Berlusconi is the end of an era. Whether it is the beginning of a new era or the beginning of a slow falling apart and drift is a big question,” said Vivien Schmidt, international relations professor at Boston university, Reuters reports.
Berlusconi loomed large over this country for nearly two decades after bursting onto the scene in 1994 after a major corruption scandal swept away the old order.
His charisma, communication skills, near control of the media and huge wealth combined with political dominance to give him enormous power that extended into all areas of Italian life.
Plagued by lurid sex scandals and court cases for fraud, he is accused of lowering the quality not just of political life but of society, with the scantily clad starlets who starred on his television shows and allegedly attended orgies at his villa acting as a damaging role model for young women.
His removal, with no comparable figure in the wings to replace him, would mark a revolution by itself but the traumatic way he was finally pushed out, with Italy on the brink of an economic catastrophe, has set in train other forces that could transform the political landscape.
“It changes the tenor. I think we are going to see a different temperament in Italian politics, there is no great charismatic figure like Berlusconi who will dominate the stage,” said Professor Erik Jones of Bologna’s Johns Hopkins university.
The installation of a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner Mario Monti — brought in by Italy’s president to end a crisis when Italy’s borrowing costs rocketed to unsustainable levels — is likely to strengthen forces tearing apart the old order.
Both left and right will face the dilemma of supporting reforms pursued by Monti to restore international confidence but which will be very unpopular with some of their constituents.
Berlusconi’s own PDL party is badly split over whether to support a government many consider undemocratic. Experts say the party, built entirely round Berlusconi, could collapse, setting off a major political realignment in the centre and right.
The crisis has also caused tensions in Berlusconi’s coalition ally the Northern League with its mercurial founder Umberto Bossi in danger of suffering the same fate as his partner.
The League is likely to end the coalition with the PDL and go into opposition, which would cause turmoil in many municipal governments in the North where the two parties are allied.
There are equal strains on the Left where the biggest force, the Democratic Party, could be badly divided over supporting Monti’s government when it implements labour market reforms opposed by its trade union allies.
“There are schisms in the Democratic Party…there are centrifugal forces that are quite profound at the moment,” said Jones. “It’s going to be an extraordinary period of polarisation and fragmentation,” he told Reuters.
“In the 20th and now the 21st century, every Italian generation has reinvented itself, usually with major stimulus from outside…this major financial crisis coincides with the end of Berlusconi’s shelf life,” said James Walston, political science professor at the American University in Rome.
The departure of Berlusconi may also lead to some cleaning up of corruption and unethical behaviour which critics say he accentuated by a huge conflict of interests between his media and industrial empire and political power.
They accuse him of using his position to fend off dozens of legal cases.
“This conflict of interest paralysed politics for 20 years and had a very pernicious effect on the economy, on politics, on the whole of public and cultural life,” said John Foot, professor of modern history at University College London.
Sergio Romano, a respected commentator and former ambassador in Moscow said: “Berlusconi’s conflict of interest contaminated Italian society. Frankly, I do not remember another moment in Italian history when there were so many scandals involving politicians.”
Walston agreed: “The fact that anything goes has become even more prelevant, the illegality small and big. If you are in a position of power you can do whatever you want, a presumption of impunity”.
The impact of Berlusconi’s departure on another part of Italian life is much less certain. The dominance of fluffy variety shows starring shapely women in skimpy clothes is likely to continue on his television channels, even if his control of the state broadcaster has ended.
In fact five women wearing tight blouses and skirts pranced about on another channel at the very moment news stations were showing Monti solemnly accepting his mandate on Sunday night.
“It will take a long time to change the social consequences of Berlusconi, which started before he became a politician, that if you wiggle your bottom nicely you can get anywhere you want,” said Walston
Berlusconi was seen as accentuating a general process that demeaned women by brazenly appointing former models as ministers or local counsellors.
“I think the world of sex and power will continue in the television world. Hopefully in the political world it wont be so important. The idea that you could become a minister or counsellor by appearing on television with Berlusconi or having an affair with him. That happens in every society but the level it has reached in Italy is quite grotesque,” said Foot.
Romano believes that if Monti overcomes considerable political obstacles and serves long enough to implement major reforms, he could create the foundation for a transformation of Italy.
But this would also depend on major constitutional changes to reform a cumbersome system that has delayed and blocked modernisation for years, Romano said.