Romano Prodi interrupted an hour-long meeting with Time on Friday to take a call of congratulations from George W. Bush. Two days earlier, Italy's Supreme Court confirmed Prodi's narrow April 10 victory over Silvio Berlusconi for the job of Prime Minister. In his first interview since his victory was sealed, Prodi, 66, talked to Jeff Israely about why the U.S. has nothing to fear and how he plans on keeping his political allies in line.
Berlusconi compared himself to Jesus Christ, accused you of being a "front man" and used vulgar language to put down your supporters. How do you campaign against such a free-swinging opponent? You're doomed if you play his game. So we never responded to his insults. Still, his way of communicating and his attacks were successful. He scared a lot of people. His coalition lost, but his party remained Italy's largest.
What are the consequences of his refusal to promptly concede defeat? It's another example of his repudiation of all that is political. There is no precedent for so much of what he does. His is a populism without any rules, and that's why he's so dangerous.
With such a narrow victory, do you fear your coalition could quickly disintegrate? No. With the close result, there's been an immediate consolidation of the coalition. When there's a narrow majority, you have to coordinate your moves carefully.
With allies that include Communists, Greens and Christian Democrats, what specifically can you do to ensure that the government doesn't collapse into crisis? It's very simple: the specter of new elections. I have made it very clear to my allies that if there's a break in the coalition, I have no other alternative but to go back to the voters. No one wants to lose their job, or cede the power they've acquired.
You have vowed to pass measures to address Berlusconi's conflict of interest as owner of Italy's three main private television channels. Will you force him to choose between politics and owning TV? I don't want to pass a punitive law, or use politics as a vendetta. But a simple antitrust law is where we must start. Democracies must have equilibrium ... and the entanglement of politics and information must be minimized.
What will be your first priority as Prime Minister? The absolute priority is the relaunching of the economy. We will start by reducing labor costs in a very targeted way, and at the same time we will send a very clear message to the worldwide markets that we have a strategy for reducing the deficit and trimming the national debt.
Demographically and otherwise, Italy is among the oldest countries in the world. How can it rejuvenate itself? The problem of Italy is not really a question of age. Japan has an older population, and it is now in full economic recovery. The problem is that Italy is old in the structure of the society.
You have said your victory is a "victory for Europe." Does that mean it's a defeat for the U.S.? Absolutely not. You heard [on the congratulations phone call] that the personal rapport with the President is very good. But Italy can only have any real influence on world affairs if it carries weight in Europe. Moreover, resolving the mother of all problems the Israeli-Palestinian question requires cooperation between Europe and the U.S.
Should the West use the threat of military action in its showdown with Iran over its nuclear program? As Nazism showed, you can never absolutely exclude a military option. But at this moment, diplomacy is the only realistically useful means to consider. We already have Iraq to worry about.
What do you say to those who worry that Berlusconi's defeat means Italian politics will never again be as entertaining? [Big smile.] Tell them I'm sorry, Mr. Prodi is indeed much more boring than Mr. Berlusconi. I can't offer them any hope for such entertainment. But entertaining didn't get us very far.