Italy: Berlusconi

29 July 2004

Italy: Berlusconi Runs Out of Time

By Gwynne Dyer

Silvio Berlusconi is safe for the summer. Everybody in Italy has gone away for the holidays, politics is on hold, and he can luxuriate for a few weeks in the fact that he leads the longest-lasting government in Italy since the fall of Mussolini. (Three years in power would not be a record in most other places, but Italy has had fifty-nine governments in the past fifty-eight years.) It’s quite amazing, really, because this is truly a man that you would not buy a used car from.

Berlusconi still has a few foreign friends. Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, his best pal in Europe, will be spending part of August with Berlusconi at his palatial villa in Sardinia (modelled on the emperor Hadrian’s summer retreat near Rome). Even US President George W. Bush probably remembers to call once in a while. (Berlusconi keeps Italian troops in Iraq even though 80 percent of Italians opposed the war.) But this is probably Berlusconi’s last summer in power.

All his biggest problems are legal. Last year his close friend and personal lawyer, Cesare Previti, was sentenced to five years in jail for bribing judges to award ownership of two business conglomerates to Berlusconi’s holding company, Fininvest. Berlusconi himself only escaped because he faced a lesser charge that was cancelled due to the statute of limitations.

In early July Berlusconi’s brother Paolo, editor of the Milan daily ‘Il Giornale,’ was sentenced to an additional four months in jail for shady business practices, making a total of two years for various crimes committed in the 1990s when he was making a fortune from a contract to dispose of Milan’s garbage. Berlusconi’s son Piersilvio, vice-president of his television company Mediaset, and his daughter Marina, a senior officer of Fininvest, are under criminal investigation for money-laundering and receiving stolen goods.

Marcello Dell’Utri, the former head of Berlusconi’s advertising agency, Publitalia, and a senator for his Forza Italia party, was in even deeper trouble. A Sicilian, he was facing charges of aiding and abetting the mafia. (All 61 of Sicily’s parliamentary seats went to Forza Italia in the last election, an unprecedented result.)

Dell’Utri’s imprisonment would have been a grave blow to the prime minister, for together with the now-jailed lawyer Cesare Previti he was one of the ‘Three Musketeers’ who were with Berlusconi from his earliest days as a property developer in Milan. (They even shared his first mansion). But last month, only a few weeks before the verdict that could have sent Dell’Utri to jail for eleven years, Berlusconi appointed him to the Council of Europe. That automatically gives him immunity from all legal cases, including his appeals on two earlier prison sentences.

Needless to say, Berlusconi faced many charges of his own, but new laws passed by his government that decriminalise accounting fraud and impede the exchange of financial information between Italian and foreign courts have extinguished all the cases but one. He will still be tried for bribing judges, since another law he passed last year to give himself immunity from prosecution was overturned by Italy’s highest court, but parliament may pass yet another law to protect him before there is a verdict. After all, that’s what he came into politics for.

Silvio Berlusconi is Italy’s richest man, the owner of all three of the country’s commercial television channels, its biggest publishing house, its biggest ad agency, Milan’s football team, and much more. He got them in the good old-fashioned Italian way, by making an alliance with a political boss who protected him and changed the laws for him when necessary (in Berlusconi’s case, Socialist party leader Bettino Craxi), and by an unwavering policy of bribery. He says he never meant to go into politics, and it’s probably true — but he had to.

In 1992 the old way of doing politics and business in Italy was overthrown by the ‘clean hands’ magistrates of Milan. The big Italian parties were discredited and destroyed in the great scandal called Tangentopoli (‘bribesville’). Craxi, Berlusconi’s patron, fled to exile in Tunisia pursued by convictions for corruption, and the financial investigators were closing in on Berlusconi’s business empire — so he founded his own party and went into politics. Within a year, thanks to his media empire, he was prime minister.

Berlusconi’s 1994 coalition government only lasted nine months, but it won him time to create complex legal defences for Fininvest and its various holdings — and he was in politics for good. It was Berlusconi, more than anyone else, who aborted the hope that Italian politics would take on a more ‘normal’ pattern after Tangentopoli. But now he is running out of time.

Berlusconi won the last election on promises of huge tax cuts and high economic growth, but there has been little growth and no tax cuts. Much of parliament’s time has been taken up with new laws to protect Berlusconi and his cronies from the courts, and now his coalition allies, the neo-fascist Alleanza Nazionale and the separatist, xenophobic Northern League, are preparing to jump ship. Nothing will happen until autumn, but his government will probably fall by the end of the year.

Will that end the political career of the billionaire who promises Italians that he will make them rich like him? Who releases albums of love songs, sends every Italian household a free copy of his lavishly illustrated autobiography, and disappears for weeks for plastic surgery as part of his permanent campaign to seduce the public? Oh, probably not.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Marcello…sentences”)