Berlusconi's last stand

Italy's great survivor wants to become prime minister for the fourth time. The decision opens an intense electoral contest over the country's direction, says Geoff Andrews.

Geoff Andrews
10 December 2012

So now it is official. After weeks of rumour and vitriol since his conviction for tax fraud, the 76-year-old Silvio Berlusconi has stated that he wants to become Italy's prime minister for the fourth time. This follows the resignation of Mario Monti after a year in the post, itself resulting from the decision by Berlusconi’s People of Freedom to withdraw support from the technocratic leader appointed to clear up Italy's economic mess. The scene is set for a period of intense political manoeuvring before an election to be held by April 2013.

Two images immediately come to mind as the "great survivor" once again seeks to confound the critics who believed his political career was over. The first is the moment in early 1994 when Berlusconi announced in a nine-minute video sent to the media (including his own TV channels) that he would "take the field", and promised Italians a "miracle" escape from political inertia and the likely prospect of a left-wing government. At the time, the aftermath of the Tangentopoli ("Bribesville") scandals and the ensuing mani pulite ("clean hands") investigations led by Antonio Di Pietro and colleagues had exposed Italy's degenerate political class. Berlusconi exploited this situation for populist ends, using the enormous power of his media networks to project himself as the "outsider" who can "save Italy". The irony was that Berlusconi was himself implicated in Tangentopoli and had benefited most from the indulgence of disgraced prime minister Bettino Craxi. Today, at a time when the left again has a clear lead in the polls, he will undoubtedly seek to invoke the moment of 1994, which led to his first (albeit brief) spell in office.

The second image is the last scene in Nanni Moretti’s film Il Caimano (The Cayman), where Berlusconi (played by Moretti himself) turns on the judges after they have sentenced him to seven years for fraud and bribing judges. It is a sinister finale, made more dramatic by the stoning of the magistrates by Berlusconi’s supporters. Moretti’s film was released immediately prior to the 2006 election, when the left squeezed a marginal victory out of Berlusconi’s own bizarre electoral laws. There were no celebrations that night in Rome, however, and the ever-open possibility of Berlusconi thwarting any chance of reform was realised with his return to power in 2008.

The reaction of Berlusconi to his conviction in October 2012 (just under a year after his resignation in November 2011) was eerily reminiscent of that moment in Il Caimano. After the verdict, Berlusconi described it - in a phone call to his own TV channel, Italia 1 - as a "political decision" that was "intolerable" and "incredible". He attacked the magistrates, echoing earlier cases where he had called them "mentally unstable". In the film, his conviction is followed by a political speech in the courtroom: "I wish to remind the court that I speak not only as prime minister but as a citizen to whom the majority of Italians have entrusted the onus of responsibility to govern." When the female magistrate points out that Italians have the "right to know" whether their prime minister is involved in corruption, Berlusconi/Moretti responds: "You are accusing me as prime minister, and as a magistrate you cannot do that. If you wish to engage in politics resign and get elected." With that rejection of the view that "all are equal before the law" he marches out of the courtroom, vowing he will not allow politically motivated judges to bring him down, after all he has done for Italy.

The enduring problem

That, in a nutshell, is Berlusconi’s present view. It is an eerie reminder that the dividing lines between fact and fiction in contemporary Italy are thin indeed, and that the sinister scenario often raised by Berlusconi - but often ignored by political commentators - is now closer to becoming reality. There are many who always believed that Silvio Berlusconi entered politics in order to avoid prosecution. During his time in office heused his majority in parliament to pass immunity legislation, thus  furthering the belief that his primary aim in achieving power was to defend his private interests. His decision to fight again will reinforce that belief. While nobody in Italy believes he will ever go to prison, he still has many powerful interests to protect.

However, things will be much more difficult for Berlusconi this time around. His People of Freedom (Pdl) currently has very low poll ratings, is divided over strategy and carries the legacy of recent economic failure in government. Far from delivering an economic miracle, Berlusconi presided over massive debt, low growth and lack of competitiveness. For once, the centre-left appears united under a new leader, Pierluigi Bersani (albeit also a figure with a long career behind him), and has enjoyed a consistent lead in the polls for several months. Berlusconi also apparently lacks strong support from political allies, which was crucial to his electoral victories in the past. The Northern League has yet to come on board and would exact a high price for any coalition. All this represents a steep hurdle for the 76-year-old.

Yet the situation could change quickly. The failure of the Pdl to find another leader was a key factor in Berlusconi’s decision to return, and the peculiar nature of Italy’s multi-party political system means that he will still have several potential partners. Moreover, the nature of his leadership and his modus operandi in relation to political clients and partners has left a gap that perhaps only he can fill. Maurizio Viroli, in his book The Liberty of Servants, argues that Berlusconi had re-established an ancient court system with a modern twist, in which his courtiers included not only political underlings but TV presenters, lawyers and others who depend on him for favours and patronage. The effect on Italy, argues Viroli, is to amplify a culture of servility rather than citizenship in which all have their price.

Then there is the centre-left Partito Democratico (Pd). At the end of 2012 it enjoys its biggest lead in the polls for several years, yet the party has a long history of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory. It has been the strongest supporter of Monti and will seek to blame Berlusconi for attempting to wreck the reform agenda. Indeed, Monti’s decision to resign might be a smart move on his part to put the ball back in Berlusconi’s court - and blame him for halting reform. Despite much statesman-like posturing, the centre-left does not have a good record of defending the national interest or putting aside party interests for the sake of economic and political reform. This has really been a long-standing problem for Italy as a whole; the absence of a strong sense of state and the difficulty of achieving unity and national identity has endured since Italian unification.

The waking game

The forthcoming election, which could be held as early as February 2013, will be dominated by the contest over proposed solutions to Italy’s economic crisis. Monti initially enjoyed strong support following Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011. He has restored some credibility to Italy’s economic strategy and received encouragement from the European Union in his attempts to tackle tax evasion, liberalise employment practices, and address the debt crisis. This work remains unfinished, and the impact of accompanying austerity is resented by many, not least trade unions who oppose the cuts in public spending, labour reforms and pensions. There are therefore many critics of Monti’s reforms on both right and left who could still have a decisive impact on the election campaign.

It is important to remember that Monti is an unelected technocrat heading a team of (so-called) experts, many of whom have links to previous political coalitions. During his time in office he has depended on the parliamentary support of the main parties, and been cautious in upsetting them unduly. At the same time another drama has been played out in Italian civil society which the Italian political class has been keen to ignore but which could have a significant impact on the election. Beppe Grillo’s "Five Star Movement" has been on an extraordinary run and is currently standing at 18% in the polls, even higher than Berlusconi’s party. That will change, but Grillo’s voice, appealing to Italians disillusioned by the country’s political system, will be a strong one during the campaign. The centre-left has preferred either to ignore him or dismiss him (with at times a degree of smugness and contempt) as an "anti-political" populist. But the centre-left should remember that it is voters rather than experts who will decide the election, and Grillo is winning support amongst a younger generation.

Beppe Grillo’s movement is a symptom of rather than a solution to Italy’s present crisis. Grillo could still play a key role and the centre-left could at least acknowledge the reasons for his rise in support (notably amongst a "lost generation" of Italians) and present a vision that goes beyond short-term electoral deals. For Italy’s problems are immense and deep-rooted, with many of its most talented young people sent into exile by the lack of meritocracy and political corruption. This is well highlighted in the new film by Annalisa Piras, Girlfriend in a Coma - based on Bill Emmott’s book Good Italy, Bad Italy - which is intended to stimulate a campaign to "wake up Italy".

But time is running out. The spectre of Berlusconi in his last battle - angrier, intolerant, ruthless - looms large once again.

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