Berlusconi’s bitter legacy

Geoff Andrews
28 March 2006

These should be the last days of Silvio Berlusconi. Each morning finds him in a more desperate condition than the last, and his old tricks no longer seem to work. His tirades against the judges and the left, familiar in their venom, do not hurt his opponents as in the past. Frequent criticism from some of his closest political allies, together with a major falling out with Confindustria (Italy's equivalent of the CBI), has taken the edge off his attacks. If Berlusconi is indeed defeated in the 9-10 April elections, it is Italy's consistent economic malaise under his reign that (as Marco Niada argues in openDemocracy) is likely to prove the clinching factor.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005)

Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:

"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)

"Bossi's – and Berlusconi's – last shout?" (August 2003)

"Bologna's lesson for London" (August 2005)

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy’s election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking, please consider responding in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Nor does his particular brand of postmodern populism, which has saved him on so many previous occasions, seem to be working this time around. Countless TV appearances on his own programmes have had little effect on the opinion polls, which show him trailing by an average four points, and he was widely seen to have lost the first "face to face" TV debate with Romano Prodi. His showman style and rhetoric – whether repeating claims about communists "(boiling) babies" in Mao Tse-tung's China "to fertilise the fields" or comparing himself to Jesus Christ and Napoleon – seem to be wearing down rather than winning over the Italian electorate. The owner of AC Milan soccer club has even suggested that politics should now stay clear of calcio.

A polarised country

But if Berlusconi shows every appearance of having lost his touch, nothing is certain in Italian politics. The election campaign, though dull and lacking imagination, has confirmed what many Italians' fear: that their country has become highly polarised. Indeed, there are signs of tension beneath the surface that hold out the possibility of something dramatic yet occurring. Italy's 85-year-old President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi has urged political leaders to moderate the tone of their discourse. The United States government, which has already endorsed Berlusconi as its favoured candidate, reinforced the sense of danger on 21 March by warning its citizens about travelling to and around Italy, after anti-fascist and anti-Berlusconi demonstrations in Milan and Genoa turned violent.

The atmosphere of polarisation is palpable even if ideological differences are hard to discern between the two contending coalitions – the ruling Casa delle Libertà (House of Freedoms) – [containing Berlusconi's own Forza Italia (Forward, Italy! ), the Lega Nord (Northern League), the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (AN), and the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC)] – and the centre-left Unione opposition. Indeed, whatever happens on 9-10 April, a decisive shift from one era to the next is not on offer. There has been very little attempt from the opposition parties, whose leaders seem to have been around forever, to articulate an idea of what Italy after Berlusconi might be like. There is no clear or long-term political alternative to Berlusconi currently on the agenda of Italian politics.

True, there is some difference of opinion between the coalitions over taxation and the management of the economy; and, if you dig deep enough, over the Iraq war. There is also criticism of the disproportional amount of airtime given to Berlusconi on his own channels in comparison to his opponents; yet, astonishingly, the opposition centre-left alliance (of which the Left Democrats and the centrist La Margherita [Daisy] network are components) has been reluctant to call for the kind of fundamental constitutional reforms that will prevent similar abuses in the future.

This lack of a coherent political alternative is remarkable – especially given the degeneration of the Italian body politic in the last five years (it now shares seventy-seventh place with Mongolia in the Freedom House survey of press freedoms), the public gaffes of its prime minister, the corruption charges against him and his friends, and the authoritarianism of his ex-fascist and xenophobic allies.

The centre-left under the leadership of Romano Prodi has taken a safety-first approach which has relied on Berlusconi's mistakes and the weakness of the Italian economy. The strategy seeks to promote a particular idea of the Italian electorate – an "imagined community" that is broadly similar to the "middle England" constituency which Britain's New Labour has cultivated. The Italian equivalent is a bit catholic and conservative on the family; tough on immigration; very cautious on taxation; suspicious of intellectuals; afraid of social movements. The problem for Prodi is that this vision is also a constraint that prevents him from addressing larger questions of Italian democracy and where the country is going, far less galvanise the newer democratic currents which have emerged in these five years.

This reluctance to engage in a meaningful way with civil society will be puzzling to those who have seen a range of citizen movements take to Italian piazzas in recent times. The strategy is best explained by seeing it as a reversion to tactics more reminiscent of the partitocrazia that used to rule Italy in the post-1945 years. Its key element is the plan to win over smaller parties to its grand coalition, while consolidating the power of party leaders. This explains, for example, why time is spent courting the UDC (the more conservative element of the old Christian Democrats and a dissenting current in the Berlusconi coalition) in the hope that it may switch sides after the election.

The sound of alarm

Beyond the political parties, it is now possible to conceive of a "radical centre" which has sought the kind of democratic renewal that might shape a post-Berlusconi era. This includes democratic networks like Nanni Moretti's Girotondi, and the Libertà e Giustizia (Liberty & Justice) group who have campaigned against Berlusconi's conflicts of interest; a new associationism that has included, for example, the range of initiatives behind the anti-mafia campaign to elect Rita Borsellino as the next regional president of Sicily; and groups like Arci which defend the rights of the clandestini (illegal immigrants) and asylum-seekers.

Also in openDemocracy on Italy under Silvio Berlusconi:

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?"
(June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy’s tragic democracy" (August 2005)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush…" (February 2006)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (April 2005)

It has been left to intellectuals to describe the severity of the current Italian crisis. Nanni Moretti has done more than most in this respect. His film, Il Caimano (The Cayman), released last week, is an account of the type of society Italy became under Berlusconi and has already reached headline news. "Let's hope it's useful and not harmful" was Prodi's lukewarm response. Umberto Eco, Italy's leading intellectual, recently warned a Libertà e Giustizia meeting in Milan that Italy is on the verge of democratic ruin: "We are facing a dramatic moment. Since 2001 Italy has fallen rapidly to the bottom in respect of law and the constitution, its economic system and its international prestige. If we have another five years of this government the decline of our country will be irreversible."

However, movements and intellectuals on their own do not win elections. In the absence of the sort of imaginative, prefigurative Gramscian strategy more typical of the Italian left, there has been little attempt to construct an alternative political consensus. Berlusconi's legacy, therefore, will remain all the more profound and disturbing. His "culture of illegality" seems to have penetrated many aspects of Italian life, from tax evasion to the flourishing illegal economy. It has given the green light to mafia groups, with almost daily killings in Calabria and Naples where the 'Ndrangheta and the Camorra have consolidated their grip.

The government's xenophobia is reaching new and dangerous levels. "We don't want Italy to become a multiethnic, multicultural country", Berlusconi declared on 27 March. Its historical revisionism has continued to undermine the anti-fascist consensus and to rewrite recent Italian history; the surreptitious rewording of the plaque in Milan's Piazza Fontana commemorating the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, the young anarchist who fell from a police-station window in December 1969 (an incident immortalised in Dario Fo's renowned drama) is emblematic of a much wider trend.

These are very difficult times in Italy. "Another five years of Berlusconi and we are fucked", Eco has said; "if he wins again I will retire and leave the country". But even if the centre-left wins, the question will be posed as urgently as it is now: what next for Italy?

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