Italy: Berlusconi at Bay

6 April 2006

Italy: Berlusconi at Bay

By Gwynne Dyer

Nobody has asked Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi if he has kept his January pledge not to have sex during the two-and-a-half months leading up to the general election on 9-10 April. But if he has, then he is living proof that sexual abstinence does not bring political success, because he is still been trailing his centre-left rival, Romano Prodi, by four or five percentage points in the opinion polls.

This is hardly surprising, since Italy’s economy is in dreadful shape. Berlusconi sold himself as a billionaire businessman who would turn Italy into another successful business, but over his five years in power the economy has grown at less than one percent a year. As his prospects for re-election fade, moreover, his rhetoric, always flamboyant, has become so extreme that it topples into self-parody.

In January, he told a TV talk-show host that only Napoleon had done more for his country — “but I am certainly taller than him.” In February, he switched to being the Son of God: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.” By March, he was comparing himself to Winston Churchill: “Churchill liberated us from the Nazis. Silvio Berlusconi is liberating us from the Communists.”

It suggests that panic has invaded the camp of the Knight (Il Cavaliere), as Berlusconi is widely known, and even some of those close to him are now taking their distance. Last month the newspaper Il Foglio, partly owned by Berlusconi’s wife and run by a close friend, carried a front-page editorial declaring that “the Knight is now tilting at windmills and the outcome of wars against windmills is well known. Knights generally succumb.”

Many people would rejoice to see Berlusconi lose, including some who voted for him in 2001 — most leaders of Italy’s big business community now see him has a disaster, for example — but it is too soon to assume that he is finished. That four or five point lead might represent the proportion of the electorate who secretly plan to vote for Berlusconi but are too embarrassed to admit it even to an opinion poller. It’s unlikely, but he could just squeak back into power.

It’s easy to see how Berlusconi could have fooled Italian voters in 2001, but how could a people as sophisticated and even as cynical as the Italians still be taken in by him today? The answer is that around half of them are not taken in at all, and will vote against him — and many among the other half know exactly what he is up to and approve of it.

Silvio Berlusconi became “the richest man in Italy” under deeply suspicious circumstances. His fortune is founded on his control of commercial television, which he owes to a murky 1980s deal with Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi (who later fled to Tunisia to escape corruption charges and died in exile). The later growth of his business empire allegedly involved collusion with the mafia and systematic bribery of officials and judges, and his entry into politics in 1994 was widely believed to be an attempt to escape indictment for these crimes by the “clean hands” magistrates who were then taking on the system.

His first term in office lasted less than a year, and through the later 1990s a long series of indictments against him and his business associates slowly progressed through the Italian courts. But since he regained the prime ministership in 2001, he has used his parliamentary majority to pass one law after another that had the aim of getting himself and other members of his business clan out of legal trouble. And many Italians, knowing exactly what he was up to, applauded him for it.

 Most Italians hate the state, and they have good reason. Italy’s bureaucracy is among the most labyrinthine, irrational and slow-moving in the world, and frustrated Italians are more likely to try to get round it than through it. So they tend to admire those who are very good at getting round the law — even if the individual in question is asking for their votes so that he can re-make the laws to get himself out of trouble and reduce the state to a servant of his personal interests.

The broader coalition that has kept Berlusconi in power for five years includes neo-fascists and the racist, anti-immigrant Northern League, but the core support for his own Forza Italia party is millions of small businesspeople whose lives are burdened by far too many taxes and laws, inspectors and regulations. In the long run Silvio Berlusconi will make both them and the state poorer if he stays in power, but in the short run they love to see him get away with it.

Even if Berlusconi loses this election, his original purpose in coming into politics has been achieved. His previous changes to the law decriminalised false accounting, made money-laundering harder to trace, and gave amnesties to tax dodgers and illegal builders. His most recent change to the law halved the time within which trials for many different offences must be completed and the sentences enforced: as a result, nearly 90 percent of corruption cases before the Court of Cassation will be struck down, together with most cases of embezzlement. So if the vote goes against Berlusconi this time, he can still retire from politics and enjoy his wealth in peace.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“It  suggests…succumb”; and “The broader..with it”)