February 24, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Dissolute, resolute, in charge

By |2023-12-13T22:27:12+01:00February 15th, 2011|Essays, Other Works|
Who can put the master of populism on the defensive?

taly has no identity separate from Silvio Berlusconi. The last two national votes, in 2001 and 2006, centered around his person, the latter swelled with the recrimination and brittle chafing that have since returned to characterize a polarized and tedious Italian political scene.

Time and again, regardless of the specific circumstances, whether re-circulated allegations of corruption or unfolding sex scandals, Italian political life is summed up by a daily referendum regarding Berlusconi’s suitability as a national leader. He is the country’s polemical life raft. He produces and situates what a French proverb calls “the good and the bad weather.”

Defenders and critics alike make their reputations based on their views of his shameful malfeasance or his unjust persecution at the hands of a biased judiciary, depending on perspectives. He is a demagogue or Job. The tyranny of his personality is a perfect fit in a country contemporaneously amused and bemused by the outrageous. He is politician as blog, mesmerically self-involved and forever ready to scrawl a new entry about his tribulation, all of which are read avidly or with disgust.

Egregiously missing from this surreal scene is a viable alternative either to Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party or to Berlusconi himself.

This matters because the last time Berlusconi was dislodged, albeit briefly, it was done politically, by center-left arc whose chief, a dour economist and technocrat named Romano Prodi, had a long and fairly successfully history of jousting with Berlusconi. On and off, more a dozen parties paused at one time or another under Prodi’s big and frayed umbrella. Many are now gone, canceled from government by recent legislation limiting tiny parties from membership in parliament.

Between 2004 and 2006, Italy’s otherwise fractured center-left scene focused on the single goal of deposing of Berlusconi. Even hardcore Communists, since deceased, simpered unhappily toward the moderate center. While there was nothing aesthetically attractive about Prodi’s roughshod agglomeration, known as the “Union,” it at least served the precise purpose of putting Berlusconi’s House of Freedom coalition on notice.

What existed then, and what has ceased in practical terms to exist now, along with the Italian left wing, is credible political competition.

As fussy and pedantic as Prodi was seen to be by unconvinced supporters, 19 million Italians voted for the “Union,” beating Berlusconi’s side by the slimmest of margins. That the intrinsically querulous Union, built for one purpose alone, could not endure, is a matter for another time.

What counts instead, or did at the time, was the successful if fleeting creation of a political entity capable of putting a master of populism on the defensive. Prodi performed nobly in two memorable television debates that repeatedly showed Berlusconi’s almost childlike reluctance to play by any rules he couldn’t break at will. He repeatedly and unapologetically violated time constraints.

Recent charges of sexual misconduct and misuse of office, including the prospect of an April trial, while tailor-made for a sex-scandal worshipping media, are less a final damnation than icing on a perverse cake, since Berlusconi’s hedonistic propensities have been known for decades, first stirring publicly in the randy, cocaine-fueled Socialist 1980s, in which Italy’s foreign minister partied at local Rome night clubs and its prime minister lived in a bohemian hotel.

The situation facing Italy now is decidedly not pretty.

While a besieged but defiant Berlusconi is under increasing pressure to resign, which he will not do, poll numbers suggest his party has lost little national support. As in the early 2000s, the pressure directed against him comes mostly from urban areas, with Italy’s provincial and countryside electorate either silent or supportive, still seeing him as a victim of the operatic conspiracies that he dreamed up in the mid-1990s and has stuck to with evangelic zeal, namely that Communists and prudes lurk behind every corner, and that intellectual judges seek the downfall of all self-made men, a category for which he valiantly stands.

It’s unimportant that these vainglorious visions contain elements of the absurd. What matters instead is that a fair number of Italians believe in conspiracies at all levels of public life and can identity with someone who points fingers at hidden enemies. Moreover, the idea that the judiciary branch enjoys the power to tap phone conversations, justified by probes into the underworld, sits badly with many Italians who while voyeuristically taking pleasure in reading leaked wiretappings collectively disdain the idea of being overheard, worrying that their own dirty laundry might be aired. (The perception of an unequal playing field wasn’t helped by the selection of three women to preside over Berlusconi’s forthcoming Milan trial).

Taken as a whole, the current crop of Berlusconi opponents lack the heft that veteran Prodi and his political associates brought to bear five years ago.

His most linear and rational critic, former National Alliance chief Gianfranco Fini, who partnered Berlusconi in forming the People of Freedom, is articulate but tainted by a rightist past he has struggled to fully put behind him. Eloquent but uninspiring, he attracts his own fierce loyalists — he just formed a party, Future and Freedom (FLI) — but struggles to extend that loyalty across political boundaries. His reformist modernism seems destined to follow the path of like-minded efforts promoted by two leftists and former Rome mayors who migrated disastrously toward the center, Francesco Rutelli, humbled by Berlusconi in the 2001 vote, and Walter Veltroni, similarly routed by Berlusconi three years ago in the most recent national elections.

The Veltroni case is particularly relevant. Considered the bright light of the center-left, Veltroni was billed as a logical successor to the stolid Prodi, and by proxy to Berlusconi himself. Elected to lead Italy’s largest leftist group, the Democratic Party, in 2008, he immediately embraced positions that Berlusconi allies saw as the “radical chic” of the time, including writing a book in praise of then-U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

But Veltroni lacked Prodi’s organizational skills, his unflappable manner, and, most important, had little influence beyond Rome itself, which Prodi, buttressed by his Bologna heritage, European Union positions, and teaching stints, had in abundance.

When Berlusconi successfully broke up the fragile “Union” coalition in early 2009, Veltroni was unprepared to face the center-right juggernaut, which crushed him unceremoniously, leading to his resignation, a scenario almost identical to that of Rutelli, who had gone through comparable stages a decade before.

Veltroni’s defeat evidenced a new problem in 21st-century Italian politics: The left lacked an identity free and clear of its opposition to Berlusconi. Given a chance to govern in 2008, it had instead busied itself with internecine mudslinging that ultimately lead to its unraveling. This, at least, was public perception.

So far, the latest incarnation of the Democratic Party, now led by the solid but uninspiring Pier Luigi Bersani, has shown little agility in challenging Berlusconi, instead preferring to parry his thrusts, many directed at the party’s woman president, 60-year-old Rosy Bindi, the butt of jokes for her looks and conservative fashion sense.

Berlusconi’s most vocal opposition critic is Antonio Di Pietro, the former magistrate who heads the so-called Italy of Values party. But Di Pietro has failed to live up to his promise. His party has single-digit strength and Di Pietro himself is often prone to Berlusconi-style populist rhetoric, but from the other direction, producing a standoff.

The Catholic Union of the Center, a ghostly version of the country’s once-dominant Christian Democratic Party, while a sometime People of Freedom ally, has more recently grown skeptical of those ties. Its leader, Pier Ferdinando Casini, another man once seen as a Berlusconi heir, recently joined Fini and Rutelli to form a political grouping known as the New Pole for Italy, or Terzo Polo, in essence a club of Berlusconi skeptics. While the Pole’s parliamentary presence has proved a legislative stumbling block for Berlusconi supporters in recent months, there’s no evidence to suggest a popular groundswell on its behalf. An alliance that contains a Catholic, a former neo-Fascist and a one-time Communist seems to many at least improbable and at worst unstable, a view Berlusconi has done his best to foster.

The practical relevance of these political dating patterns, namely their fragility, sheds light on Berlusconi’s boisterous confidence. It also helps explain the strength of the People of Freedom, which is girded by typically rigid rightist loyalties to a central figure, a chief, a boss. When Fini dissented last summer, he was immediately expelled. Though many observers assailed the move as undemocratic, it was in line with the military if not authoritarian organization Berlusconi demands of his political tribe, in part accounting for the party’s framing in terms of a “people” and not a party.

Despite the raft of new scandals, some treading on dissolute new ground, including sex with minors, Berlusconi has so far displayed few public weaknesses. More important, the opposition, as it exists now, has yet to organize in such a way as to suggest early elections would bring an end to the latest Berlusconi era. He will soon turn 75.

Critically, Berlusconi continues to count on support from another populist group, the Northern League, whose longtime leader, Umberto Bossi, is cut from the same hardcore, loyalist cloth as Berlusconi. Both leaders, though wildly different, rule through personal authority and prize power absolutely, brooking no dissent.

The Northern League has used provincially-located dissatisfaction against Italy’s immigrant tide and its desire for regional self-legislation, known as federalism, to build an imposing power base that surpassed 10 percent of the vote in 2009 European elections, a useful test for performances in national tallies.

Bossi has been Berlusconi’s staunchest ally in dark times, hoping to obtain legislative rewards, foremost among them the introduction of fiscal federalism, which would not only boost the financial fortunes of prosperous northern regions but also free up cash that previously trickled down to Rome. Berlusconi recently rewarded Bossi by rejecting the deadlock reached by a special commission created to study the wisdom of implementing local taxation. He insisted he’d forge ahead with the federalist agenda at a parliamentary level, using his own party’s clout and that of Bossi’s. Bossi responded by repeating that he saw no reason for Berlusconi to resign despite an intensification in the sex scandal battle, including street protests. The two parties remain joined at the hip and are likely to control at least 40 percent of the national electorate whatever Berlusconi’s fate.

Even if Berlusconi were forced aside by legal woes and replaced, at least temporarily, by an interim government headed by Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, as some insiders have suggested, the situation would vary only slightly. Lombardy-born Tremonti, a longtime Berlusconi minister who heads the Italian branch of the Aspen Institute, is not only is a strong supporter of federalism but a friend to Bossi.

For the time being, Italy’s president, octogenarian Giorgio Napolitano, a former resistance fighter and “gentleman” Communist, while disliking Berlusconi, has few options. His executive power is limited. He cannot, for example, dismiss an incumbent prime minister for perceived impropriety. Nor can he remove a sitting prime minister who still holds a majority in parliament, which Berlusconi still has, albeit insecurely, and jealously guards. Napolitano must limit himself to statements of approval or disapproval, with the latter increasing in frequency. He has tread carefully as the hostilities between Berlusconi and the nation’s judiciary branch descended into trench warfare, and now open trial, with each side accusing the other of deceit in what often resembles an adolescent fist fight.

Meanwhile, the Berlusconi debate, pro and con, continues to escalate — all the more so given the impending trial. Berlusconi, according to one foreign commentator, is working “to subvert the constitution, to annihilate the power of the judiciary and concentrate power in the executive…” While some of this may be true, the language and tone of the charges are similar, if not often identical, to the kind generated by supporters of Prodi’s “Union” forces in 2005 as they readied their Don Quixote-style onslaught that culminated a year later in a bittersweet, some might say illusory, triumph.

After the formalizing of his defeat (a full month after the 2006 vote), Berlusconi grudgingly responded with single line, which he repeated hypnotically until it came true: The new government was unstable and would not last.

Assuming the reigning Berlusconi government collapses or that he is forced from office, no objective reason exists to believe that early national elections will change the Italian balance of power, or that Berlusconi will graciously vacate the me-first spotlight he so adores. The People of Freedom and the Northern League, if they remain in ideological lockstep, are still the country’s leading political forces.

In the late 1970s, as Italian politics slipped into bedlam, with the Communist Party controlling more than a third of the electorate and urban terrorism making lethal inroads, a familiar figure returned to a prominent position within the ruling Christian Democrats. He was the Neapolitan former Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, a man of short stature (he was 5-foot-3) with a Cheshire cat grin who seemed physiologically incapable of abandoning the political scene. By 1980, at 72, he’d already been prime minister three times. Fanfani’s persistence seemed to some ridiculous. It was said that you could toss him out the front door but he’d inevitably reappear in the living room, having crawled in through the window.

Remarkably, Fanfani would get two more stints as Italy’s prime minister, brief occupations in 1982 and 1987, leaving the top office for the last time at age 80. He never stopped grinning.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.