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Berlusconi - and Italy - on trial

The new legal case against Italy's prime minister is also a test for a divided nation at a critical stage in its history, says Geoff Andrews.
Geoff Andrews
16 February 2011

A European political leader whose name has long been associated with scandal is now facing his gravest legal challenge. On 15 February 2011, prosecutors in Milan called Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for trial on two charges: procuring the services of a then 17-year-old girl called Karima El Mahroug for sex, and abusing power by negotiating with the police in an attempt to secure her release from custody.

Berlusconi has evaded prosecution on many previous occasions, either by exploiting the statute of limitations or being protected by parliamentary immunity. This time, when he appears before three (women) judges on 6 April 2011, there may be no escape - and not merely because the latest accusations refer to events in 2010, and in January 2011 the constitutional court significantly weakened the law passed in April 2010 that had granted temporary immunity to Il Cavaliere and senior colleagues. It is because the stakes have become so high: for Italy has become so damagingly entrenched in the mire of Berlusconi’s private-public excesses that its very economic and political security, as well as its international prestige, is at risk.

The fresh case against Silvio Berlusconi are but the latest in a series of corruption and sex scandals he (and therefore Italy) has been embroiled in for more than a decade. But in recent months a turning-point seems to have been reached, with what appears a rapid and irreversible decline in his public standing; polling results released on 14 February suggest that only 30.4% of Italians support him.

Italy’s bruised reputation is largely the result of Berlusconi’s success in recasting the country in his own image. A fusion of money, sex and personal interests has allowed Berlusconismo to corrode the normal safeguards: the rule of law, equal citizenship and political transparency. Italy’s very identity is suffering as a result (see "Silvio Berlusconi: endgame, prolonged", 14 December 2010).

As many as a million demonstrators, the huge majority of them women, filled the cities on 13 February 2011 in protest against Berlusconi’s use of his power to degrade women. “Italy is not a brothel”, read a placard carried by some. The sight of a national political leader providing rent-free accommodation (“dolls’ houses”) to young women so they can attend sex parties at his villas suggests a leader contemptuous of the duties of public office.

A divided country

The growing number of Italians now calling for Berlusconi’s resignation also knows that removing him is only the first step in reclaiming Italy’s status as a serious international partner. The country's stagnant economy has deep structural problems; its unease over immigrants and diversity is intensified by the arrival of more north Africans following the Tunisian revolt; and its domestic troubles mean that a country which in the past has embodied the best traditions of Mediterranean civilisation is unable to play a leading role at a time of crisis in the middle east.

Indeed, I would argue that Italy itself - as it prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the moment of national unification, 17 March 1861 - is on trial. For the country is now divided in multiple ways: in economic terms (including between north and south, but across other indices too), by generation, over immigration and the rise of the xenophobic (Lega Nord) Northern League (Berlusconi’s main political allies). Above all, Italy is polarised over the figure of Silvio Berlusconi: half of the country is indifferent to his excesses and unperturbed by his continuation in office, while the other half is horrified at the damage he has done to Italy’s image yet frustrated at the absence of a viable political alternative.

Some of these divisions are familiar, but together they create a situation that has few precedents Italy’s modern history.

In this context, the pompous rhetoric of national unity that will emanate from Italy’s political class around 17 March will mean little. Italy’s foreign minister is compromised by his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to defend the prime minister’s immunity from judicial investigations; this is the same Franco Frattini who, responding to an article I wrote for the Financial Times, described criticism of Berlusconi’s culture of illegality as an “anti-Italian” prejudice (see "Italy's problems do not end with Berlusconi" [30 July 2009], and "Fitness to govern is determined by electorate" [4 August 2009]).

But such preposterousness is unfortunately matched on the centre-left by a kind of provincialism. It is no longer enough to say that the problems of Italy’s political class are at root just a variant of those elsewhere. This is to misrepresents the profound seriousness of Italy’s predicament (see "Berlusconi's scandal, Italy's tragedy", 29 June 2009).

A wider decay

The failure of a new project to emerge is largely the responsibility of the official opposition. The attempts by Massimo D’Alema, Walter Veltroni and other failed leaders of the centre-left to negotiate with Berlusconi, playing down his excesses and keeping a distance from the rising movement of opposition in civil society, only played into the prime minister’s hands. It has been the worst form of political capitulation. Indeed, the demonstrations on 13 February can be seen in part as a response to these leaders’ ineptitude (see "Beyond Berlusconi: ten questions to Italy's opposition", 15 February 2010).

The spectacle of Berlusconi publicly denouncing magistrates and disregarding their authority has alienated even some of his former allies. Gianfranco Fini broke with Berlusconi in 2010 to set up his own Future and Freedom party, and brought a no-confidence vote to parliament in December 2010 that was only narrowly defeated; he says that Berlusconi’s resignation is the only way forward.

Berlusconi looked uncharacteristically worried on the evening of the trial announcement. On past form, his probable response will be to present himself as a victim of “farcical” and politically motivated judges; to appeal to the voters; to claim the democratic high ground; and to encourage his supporters to demonstrate outside the the magistrates' offices.

The Northern League is likely to intensify its call for elections - which Berlusconi himself may now consider. The tension between Italy’s prime minister and the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, may further intensify. Nichi Vendola, the leader of the Puglia region in Italy's south and the sole opposition leader strong and credible enough to take on Berlusconi, will seek to sharpen his challenge.

The demonstrators who took to the streets of Italy (and other countries) on 13 February now believe that - at last - history is on their side. The street protests and assemblies which toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and threaten others in the middle east are an extra source of hope. It is a mark of Italy’s decline that Berlusconi is being compared to his old friend Hosni Mubarak. Italy too is now on trial - over its capacity to get rid of Berlusconi and deliver a progressive and modern vision for their country.

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