Bettino Craxi’s legacy, Italy's misery

The commemoration of a discredited Italian prime minister exemplifies the political decadence at the country’s heart, says Geoff Andrews.
Geoff Andrews
3 February 2010

A decade has passed since Bettino Craxi, Italy’s former prime minister and Silvio Berlusconi’s patron, died in exile in Tunisia on 19 January 2000. Craxi had left Italy in 1994 - the year Silvio Berlusconi took power for the first time – in disgrace, fleeing from justice as the most prominent beneficiary of the political-corruption scandals known as tangentopoli (“bribesville”). He was pursued not only by the magistrates but by ordinary citizens, who on one occasion had taken to throwing coins at him and calling “thief” as he left his Rome residence. He was the most unpopular public figure in Italy at the time and his departure symbolised the political earthquake that brought Italy’s political class to its knees in the early 1990s.

The tenth anniversary of Craxi’s death might therefore have been an important occasion for reflection for Italy’s political leaders, to look back on that earlier moment which sent the political system into its worst post-war crisis. It might have been an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and reinforce the commitment to carry through the reforms first promised by the mani pulite (“clean hands”) investigations, which sent Craxi into exile and discredited the once-hegemonic Christian Democrats. If this route had been taken, and combined with anti-mafia reforms, it could have been the foundation of a more open and transparent second republic, reflective of the historically strong civil-society traditions in Italy.

Instead, from centre-right to centre left, with the addition of a supportive message from the state president Giorgio Napolitano, we have seen the grotesque spectacle of Italy’s political class engage in a sordid mission to rehabilitate one of Italy’s most corrupt leaders: a fugitive from justice who stole a large amount of public money. It has been left to the usual suspects - Antonio Di Pietro, the very magistrate who led the “clean hands” investigations, but whose party now commands less than 10% of the vote, Beppe Grillo, Marco Travaglio and assorted intellectuals and activists - to try and set the record straight. As Italy’s degenerate political class regroups once more, these however are increasingly marginalised voices.

Bettino Craxi was prime minister between 1983-87 and has been credited with leading Italy into the Group of Seven (G7), for cutting inflation and for his diplomacy with the Arab world (which became apparent during the Achille Lauro hostage-crisis in October 1985). Yet, these were also the years defined for many by the term Milana da bere (the Milan you can drink), and Craxi was at the heart of the easy money and free-market extravagances of that moment. This was the world in which Berlusconi also thrived and Craxi, who was best man at his second wedding and godfather to one of his children, played a pivotal role in the rise of il Cavaliere. Craxi was prime minister when, in 1985, Berlusconi’s private TV channels were forced off the air in breach of a rule forbidding national networks. His ability to overturn that judgement was the beginning of his domination of the media and the origins of his populist intervention into the homes of ordinary Italians.

After fleeing during investigation in 1994, Craxi was found guilty initially of fraud and sentenced to thirteen years, with a further eight years added in 1996. By the time he died, Silvio Berlusconi had already explicitly exploited the vacuum left by the fall of Craxi’s socialists and the Christian Democrats. It was Berlusconi, Craxi’s close ally, who was able to present himself as the “outsider”, the politician who could variously modernise and “save” Italy. It is not surprising then that the centre-right government has good reasons to celebrate the anniversary of Craxi’s death: his daughter Stefania is a junior minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government and his son Bobo is also a politician, alternating between centre-left and centre-right coalitions.

A lost polity

However, the most revealing and worrying aspect of the whole business is what it says about Italy’s defeated and beleaguered opposition. The prospects for reform have never been further away in recent times, despite the Machiavellian machinations of Massimo D’Alema, the timidity of Napolitano, the portentous posturing of Walter Veltroni and most of the silence of the Catholic centre. Where is the opposition in the debates for reform? Why has it continually been unable to construct a long-term constitutional-reform agenda and in the process failed abysmally to take the opportunities of the early 1990s? (see Perry Anderson, "An Entire Order Converted into What It Was Intended to End" [London Review of Books, 12 February 2009] and "An Invertebrate Left" [London Review of Books, 12 March 2009]).

Those who want to know what is wrong with contemporary Italy need look no further than the attempt to rehabilitate Craxi. It confirms the degeneracy of Italy’s political class, from right to left. Almost every day a political leader, mayor or other public official faces corruption charges; even the “red city” of Bologna, renowned for clean efficient local government in the 1970s and 1980s has seen its centre-left mayor resign on fraud charges. For the long-suffering Italian citizens who took to the streets in the spirit of reform, Craxi’s legacy brings a sense of betrayal, of hopelessness, and with many unanswered questions.

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