Berlusconi bedraggled

The news keeps getting worse for Berlusconi. But over and over like a cat, he survives. How long? An update and round-up of his recent un-statesmanship
Valentina Pasquali
15 November 2010

It’s raining in Italy. Literally and figuratively pouring cats and dogs on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Highly productive regions in the northeast are flooding, archeological treasures in the south are collapsing, trash is once again piling up high around Naples, and yet another underage girl testifies about the prime minister’s dissolute lifestyle.

Consumed by the idea of fixing the justice system to benefit his personal interests and distracted by an insatiable appetite for the high-life, this billionaire and media mogul appears to have lost track of a ballooning debt and rising unemployment. Between his neglect for the economy and the decidedly poor taste of his private conduct, Italy’s embattled premier managed to antagonize even those who used to be his staunchest allies. The Catholic Church, the Italian industrialists association Confindustria, and the President of the Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini have all recently lambasted Berlusconi, with Fini threatening to bring his political journey to an end. 

Berlusconi is not new to scandals and not prone to backing down from a good fight. However, even the ever-smiling, always joking, hyper energetic Berlusconi is showing signs of fatigue, confessing to the Prime Minister of Vietnam during last week’s G20 meeting in Seoul, "in my country right now I have a few problems".

Never did Berlusconi look so beaten as during his visit, last Tuesday, to the provinces of Verona and Vicenza, the hardest-hit in the northeastern region of Veneto, where a flood of historic proportions left some of Italy’s most productive towns swimming in sludge and covered in mud. The prime minister pledged to disburse 300 million Euros in government emergency funds. He was met with protests and the disappointment of those who complained it took him too long to arrive on the scene and that the money promised was not enough to make up for the lost income of this area, which, alone, accounts for about 5% of Italy’s GDP.

While the prime minister surveyed the muck up north, one of his closest confidants, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, got stuck down south. The House of Gladiators, one of the most famous buildings in the archeological town of Pompeii, which was buried by Mount Vesuvius’ ashes in the volcanic explosion of the year A.D.79 and, under these ashes, was preserved for almost two thousand years, crumbled onto itself on November 5th. The collapse was ascribed to a combination of mismanagement, lack of government funding (this year’s heritage maintenance budget was cut from €30m, £25m, to €19m), and difficult climatic conditions that include, heavy rains, humidity and mud.

As if this wasn’t enough, the garbage crisis that, only two years ago, put Italy on the front pages of newspapers across the world, sparked up again. In October, residents of the town of Terzigno, which overlooks the Bay of Naples, started protesting the alleged misuse of a nearby landfill -- and the government’s plan to build a new, larger one -- which has apparently become the preferred destination for criminal organizations illegally dumping toxic waste. Because of the protests, ensuing strikes and the inability of the government to find a resolution to the standstill, Terzigno’s streets are now covered in trash.

Worst of all, Berlusconi’s already questionable moral standing was tarnished like never before by his latest sex scandal. A teenage Moroccan runaway known as “Ruby the heartthrob” -- her name is Karima El Mahroug -- revealed to law enforcement officials who arrested her for theft in late October, that she had participated in orgiastic parties organized at the behest of Berlusconi, and that she received money and jewelry in exchange. The naked Italian prime minister, said El Marhoug, would surround himself with tens of young, stripped-down ladies, in a ritual nicknamed “bunga bunga,” which, apparently, he had imported from his good friend and Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi. Just as odd is that, upon learning of El Mahroug’s arrest, Berlusconi called the Milan police headquarters to ask for her release, explaining that she was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (a pretense found to be untrue).

Berlusconi did not deny any slice of the story and, instead, justified his behavior by saying that “it’s better to have a passion for beautiful women than being gay,” a comment which, of course, triggered even greater negative fallout. At the end of the day, there may not be any legal grounds to bring criminal charges against the prime minister (the age of consent in Italy is 14 and prostitution is not illegal per-se, it is only illegal to profit from it). However, Berlusconi’s most recent abandonment of private and public decorum seems to have insulted the previously supportive Italian elite in an unprecedented way.

The Catholic Church, which has been very appreciative of the prime minister socially conservative platform and, more often than not, appeared willing to close one or both eyes over Berlusconi’s extravagant private life, took a harsher stance this time. Avvenire, a daily newspaper close to the Vatican, wrote that “personal sobriety and decorous respect of the public office one represents are the minimum [duties expected of those who hold the highest office in the land], and they have to do as much with language as with ‘lifestyle.”

Emma Marcegaglia, president of Confidustria, a traditional ally of Berlusconi’s business-friendly politics was also critical. She said that a “new downpour of mud is enveloping the credibility of the institutions and the government,” and that “politics must restore a sense of dignity and respect for our institutions, otherwise Italy will not make it.” The industrialists complain that Berlusconi’s government has taken no real action to kick-start the economy in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

Although Italy has borne the brunt of the crisis better than other PIIGS (or at least better than Greece, Portugal and Ireland), its deficit peaked at over 5% of its GDP last year, putting the country in the position of having to approve 13 billion Euros of spending cuts if it wants to avoid the punitive rates on borrowed money that are already threatening government bankruptcy in Ireland.

Berlusconi’s growing pains have emboldened Gianfranco Fini, the President of the Chamber of Deputies and, once upon a time, Berlusconi’s closest ally. In July, Fini broke off with Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party-PDL, which he had helped found, and created his own right-of-center group, Future and Liberty for Italy-FLI. Fini envisions FLI as the future party of a modern, pro-European conservative movement, which can depart from the populist, anti-immigration rhetoric of the Northern League, Berlusconi’s other partner, and be freed of the prime minister’s compromising behavior.

In remarks delivered to the FLI national convention on November 7th, Fini took a not-so-conceived jab at his former ally when he said that “moral decay […] depends on the loss of decorum and rigor in the behavior of those who must set an example in their role as public figures.” Fini demanded that Berlusconi resign, so that Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, can appoint another prime minister to form a new cabinet capable of winning the approval of a broader coalition of parliamentarians.

Berlusconi refused to step down, challenging Fini to aim at the government with a floor vote. Northern League’s Umberto Bossi made a last-ditch attempt at a compromise on Friday, trying to win the approval of Fini for a different solution: Berlusconi would resign from his post if he was given the guarantee that President Napolitano would re-appoint him prime minister and the FLI would support his re-shuffled government. []

Fini declined the offer and, instead, promised to withdraw his one minister and three deputies from the government, allowing Berlusconi’s majority to stand, for the time being, on a vote-by-vote basis, and promising not to pull the plug before parliament comes to a decision on next year’s budget (because of a sense of responsibility toward the country and because FLI, which is not expected to debut as a full-fledged party until 2011, is not yet in a position to fight in an election).

In an unusually bold move, a generally ineffective opposition jumped at the opportunity and put forward a no-confidence motion in the Chamber of Deputies. Allies of Berlusconi in the Senate requested a separate motion supporting the prime minister. The leadership of the two houses must decide on the timing of both motions, taking into account that, in the meantime, Berlusconi announced, on Saturday, that his government is willing to confront a vote of confidence, first in the Senate then in the Chamber, but only after the parliament approves the new budget.

Although we may soon see the end of this government, Italian journalist Marco Travaglio warns that it is too early to predict the demise of Silvio Berlusconi, “who has seven lives, like a cat.” However, the billionaire prime minister, media magnate, real estate mogul and Italy’s most prominent personality of the last two decades, appears to be at the end of the rope.

Even his media empire is suffering. As reported by the Financial Times, shares of Berluconi’s Mediaset, which tend to reflect the political mood in Italy, fell over 10% on the Milan stock exchange last week, a figure equivalent to about 600 million in lost value. As they say, when it rains, it pours. 

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