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Beppe Grillo

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Berlusconi: Down But Not Yet Out

4 August 2013

Berlusconi: Down But Not Yet Out

By Gwynne Dyer

“I will not go into exile like Bettino Craxi was forced to,” said Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as he awaited the outcome of his final appeal against a four-year prison sentence for tax fraud. (Craxi, another former prime minister and a friend and protector of Berlusconi’s, fled to Tunisia and died in exile after being convicted of corruption and sentenced to nine years in prison).

“If they convict me, if they take that responsibility upon themselves, I’ll go to jail,” Berlusconi continued. Brave words, but they would have been even more impressive if Berlusconi, who is 76, didn’t know that criminals over the age of 70 almost never get sent to prison in Italy.

Last week Italy’s highest court rejected Berlusconi’s last appeal and confirmed his sentence, although in practice it is unlikely to amount to more than a year’s house arrest. However, it did not confirm the lower court’s decision to ban him, as a convicted criminal, from holding political office for five years. That will be reviewed by a lower court, and may not be decided for many months.

So for the moment, at least, Berlusconi can go on being a senator, and the leader of his People of Freedom party, and in effect the co-leader of the coalition that now governs Italy. He has already been convicted and sentenced to jail for two other offences that are going through the appeal process now, but “lo psiconano”, the psychotic dwarf (as rival politician Beppe Grillo calls him), still dominates the Italian political horizon.

Silvio Berlusconi has been at the centre of Italian politics for the past twenty years, half the time as prime minister, but there is reason to believe that he first went into politics mainly to avoid various criminal prosecutions. You cannot be tried while you are prime minister, and if you stay in office long enough the cases expire because of the statute of limitations. (And while in office, Berlusconi changed the law to make them expire more quickly.)

So it was only when he lost power in 2011 that the many pending cases against him could go ahead. The results, so far, have been three convictions.

The first was for tax fraud, in a case where his Mediaset company paid false invoices, hundreds of millions of euros too high, for distribution rights to US films. (The excess money went into an overseas, tax-free slush fund.) The second was for leaking a police wiretap to one of his publications. And the third was for having sex with an under-age prostitute and abusing his prime ministerial powers to get her out of jail.

The prostitute, 17 at the time, was a Moroccan erotic dancer working under the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (Heart-Stealer). She attended one of Berlusconi’s notorious “bunga bunga” parties, and out of the dozen or so women there, she was the one who attracted the great man’s special attention.

So he took her upstairs, gave her 7,000 euros, and (in his version) sent her home untouched. Later on he also gave her jewellery, lots more money, and an Audi – and when she was arrested on suspicion of theft, he called up the police station and got her released by claiming, untruthfully, that she was the grand-daughter of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Charges were laid, and even though Berlusconi gave 127,000 euros to three key witnesses just before the trial began, he was found guilty last June. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and a lifetime ban on holding public office. That case has now also started its way through the lengthy appeals process, but one by one the doors are shutting against Berlusconi.

How did he get away with it for so long? One reason is a justice system so inefficient and overloaded that it’s easy for a rich man with good lawyers to string a case out until it dies of old age. Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy, and Italy has 9 million court cases pending. (There are only 60 million Italians.)

The larger reason is that Berlusconi, for all his sleaze and corruption, is a brilliant politician. His unique achievement was to create a coalition of north Italian racists, central and south Italian post-fascists, and just plain conservative Catholics, and hold it together for almost two decades.

That coalition is gradually disintegrating now, but it blocked the modernisation of Italian politics that should have followed the “Tangentopoli” scandals and the collapse of the old political parties in the early 1990s for a full two decades.

Berlusconi’s departure from politics will be good for Italy, but his long time in office has done permanent harm to the country’s economy and its political and legal systems. And what will he do when he is finally banned from politics?

Well, he may have to spend a year under house arrest, but he has lots of very big houses, and lots of young women will still come to the parties of such a generous man.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“How…decades”)

Italy: Grillosconi Wins

28 February 2013

Italy: Grillosconi Wins

By Gwynne Dyer

The winner of last week’s election in Italy was a mythical beast called “Grillosconi”. That is bad news for Italy, for the single European currency, the euro, and even for the future of the European Union. Not that “Grillosconi” will ever form a coherent government in Italy. The problem is that he – or rather, they – will prevent anybody else from doing that either.

The newer part of this hybrid beast is Beppe Grillo, a former stand-up comedian who is essentially an anti-politician. His blog boils with bile against Italy’s entire political class, and his public appearances are angry, foul-mouthed, arm-waving rants against the whole system.

Raging against Italy’s privileged, corrupt and dysfunctional political class is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which in just a few years grew from nothing to take a quarter of the national vote in last Sunday’s election, has nothing useful to put in its place. Just “throw the bums out”, and the democratic power of the internet will solve all of Italy’s problems.

“We want to destroy everything,” Grillo said in a recent interview with the BBC. “But not rebuild with the same old rubble. We have new ideas.” We have heard this sort of talk in Europe before, always from people who turned out to be totalitarians of some sort, whether Communist or fascist. It should not be necessary for Italy to go through all that again.

The older part of the beast is Silvio Berlusconi, the former cruise-ship crooner and billionaire media magnate (he’s the richest man in Italy) whose cynical populism has dominated Italian politics for the past twenty years. For more than half of that time he has been the prime minister, and even when he’s out of power he dominates the political stage.

Berlusconi is 76 now, but he still manages to generate constant sex scandals. (His “bunga bunga” parties are notorious, and he currently faces charges in connection with an under-age prostitute.) He has been fighting charges or appealing against convictions for corruption for the whole time he has been in politics, and keeps changing the criminal law to avoid doing jail time. Yet a large number of Italians go on voting for him.

Their devotion is even more inexplicable when you recall that Italy has been in steady economic decline for most of Berlusconi’s two decades as the country’s dominant political figure. The Italian economy is smaller than it was twelve years ago, over a third of the under-25s are unemployed, and the state auditor estimates that 60 billion euros is stolen from the national budget by corrupt politicians every year.

So 29 percent of Italians voted for Silvio Berlusconi’s party in the election last weekend, and 25 percent voted for Beppe Grillo’s. More than half of Italy’s voters preferred some part of the “Grillosconi” monster to more serious politicians who talked about fixing the economy, tackling the budget deficit, fighting organised crime, and reforming the country’s badly broken justice system.

The result is political paralysis: no party or group of parties is able to form a stable government, and there will probably be another election within a year. (Only one Italian government in the past seven decades has served out its full five-year term.) But why should we believe that that will produce a better outcome? Grillo confidently predicts that his Five Star Movement will win a majority next time round, and he may well be right.

Berlusconi promises to bring back the good old days with a wave of his magic wand: 4 million new jobs, tax cuts, and even refunds for taxes paid in the recent past. But you have to shut your eyes to the financial disaster that is engulfing Italy to believe that, and it will be even harder to do that a year from now.

Grillo promises salvation in a fantasy future where everything happens on the web, but he’s really just getting the protest vote. Even he admits that “the (Five Star) Movement is a dream of what could happen in 20 or 30 years. Not now. Now, nothing will happen.” So why would anyone look to him for a solution to today’s pressing problems? Good question.

Meanwhile, the Italian economy continues to decay, and the government goes on spending money it does not have. One number says it all: about 70,000 Italian public officials are given cars with chauffeurs. (In Britain, the number is 300.) The risk grows that Italy will need a financial bail-out so massive that it causes a collapse of the euro.

Why so many Italians put up with this kind of thing passes understanding. But so does the fact that so many of those who are infuriated by it turn to a clown like Grillo, who offers salvation in the form of a web-based direct democracy. The crisis will therefore continue indefinitely.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Berlusconi…question”)