â€œTHIS is a wise country, a country that knows when a person is tired and has turned vicious, when it is time to turn over a new leaf.â€
That was the upbeat assessment of Walter Veltroni, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, just before Italyâ€™s national election last weekend.
So what did the wise Italians do? They elected Veltroniâ€™s adversary, billionaire buffoon Silvio Berlusconi, to a third term as prime minister.
To elect Berlusconi once, as Oscar Wilde might have put it, may be regarded as a misfortune. To elect him twice looks like carelessness. But to elect him three times is beyond a joke, for he is the most transparent fraud to have held high public office in a major European country since the Second World War.
He even makes the late Boris Yeltsin look serious and competent by comparison.
What can the Italians have been thinking? They were, I suspect, thinking that the situation is so bad that only a self-proclaimed miracle-worker like Berlusconi might have the magic to fix it.
He managed to turn himself into the second-richest man in the country; maybe he can do it for the rest of us, too. And if the magic doesnâ€™t work, well, at least heâ€™s entertaining.
Berlusconi truly is entertaining, in a crude sort of way. He is a compulsive clown, once making the sign of a cuckoldâ€™s horns behind the head of a fellow dignitary in a group photo of national leaders.
He rubbishes foreign cooking (â€œThe Finns donâ€™t even know what prosciutto isâ€). He makes preposterous promises, like a month without taxes (â€œWe probably wouldnâ€™t be able to do it because it would cost too much, but as you can see we donâ€™t lack imagination in solving problems.â€).
He claims his Latin is good enough to have lunch with Julius Caesar.
The jokes are deliberately outrageous, and sometimes they are funny: â€œIâ€™m sorry for having said Communists eat babies. But if you want, I can organise a conference in which I will prove Communists have really eaten babies.â€
When all the other Italian politicians were busily eating buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese in public to prove that it hadnâ€™t been contaminated by the garbage crisis in Naples, Berlusconi went to the city, took one nibble, and started writhing in mock agony.
At other times, however, when the topic is women or gays or immigrants, the jokes are brutally cruel: â€œAn Aids patient asks his doctor if the sand treatment prescribed for him will do any good. No, says the doctor, but you will get used to living under the earth.â€
Itâ€™s hard to imagine any other mainstream Western leader having a future in politics after saying something like that, but many Italians just think â€œGood old Silvioâ€.
One wouldnâ€™t dwell so much on the clown-like behaviour if it was just the cover for a serious political programme, but there is none in sight.
Having made a first fortune in real estate and a second in the media (he owns Italyâ€™s three big commercial TV channels), he got into politics in the early 1990s mainly as a way of evading the bribery and corruption charges that were threatening to bring him down. So far, there have been eleven prosecutions brought against him, and both of his closest business associates have been convicted.
Much of the legislative effort during his previous two terms as prime minister was devoted to re-writing the laws to help Berlusconi escape conviction: changing the statute of limitations, for example, so that the charges against him suddenly expired.
For all his promises to bring a successful business tycoonâ€™s methods to the task of fixing Italyâ€™s ailing economy, he made few significant changes, and the slow decay of the Italian state and economy continued.
By now it is getting very serious. The national airline, Alitalia, is about to collapse, and Italians were recently shocked by the news that Spain now has a bigger economy despite having 15 million fewer people than Italy.
They were even more startled to learn that the average income in Greece is now higher than in Italy. It is a very long time since the Italian economic miracle of the 1950s and â€˜60s.
So why did Italians give this 71-year-old charlatan a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament in this election, especially when the worst of the decline happened during his previous time in office? Perhaps the best answer lies in something written recently by political scientist and opinion poller Ilvo Diamanti: â€œItalian society has been hit by a real â€˜collapse of the futureâ€™. Almost two out of three Italians believe that in the near future the young will have a worse social and economic position than their parents.â€
This is despair. People in this frame of mind do not always make rational choices, and in choosing Berlusconi they are looking for magic.
But he doesnâ€™t have any magic, and after five more years with him at the helm â€” he has the majority to last a full term â€” it is quite likely that Italy will even have to bail out of the euro. The Italian state is slowly collapsing before our eyes.