Beyond Berlusconi: ten questions to Italy’s opposition

Italy’s economy and polity are in perennial trouble, but its prime minister Silvio Berlusconi survives every blow. All the more reason to scrutinise Italy's opposition, says Geoff Andrews.
Geoff Andrews
15 February 2010

The focus of critical attention that has long been on Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is now moving to the country’s political opposition. In May-June 2009, two publications - La Repubblica and openDemocracy - responded to the latest scandals swirling around Berlusconi by posing a series of questions to him. “Le dieci domande mai poste al Cavaliere” (14 May 2009) and “Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions” (1 June 2009) asked the prime minister to account (among other things) for his public behaviour over his relationships with young women, his conflicts of interest as media tycoon and political leader, his party’s selection of  “showgirl” candidates in the European elections, and his attacks on Italy’s judiciary and president.

These media initiatives provoked an enormous response and a wide-ranging debate both in Italy and Britain (as well as denunciation and even legal threats from Silvio Berlusconi). But eight months on, il Cavaliere has once again demonstrated that he is a great survivor. The various scandals, adverse foreign media coverage, the ruling of Italy’s constitutional-court in October 2009 that overturned a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while he remains in office, the wounding assault by a disturbed citizen at a Milan campaign rally in December - none of these events has seriously dented his public standing. Some current opinion-polls measure his governing coalition’s lead over the opposition - which has struggled to make any impact in these months - at 16% (see, for example, “Governing Right is Stable in Italy”, Angus Reid Global Monitor, 14 February 2010). In these circumstances, it looks like a misnomer to talk of a “crisis” in the government, and seems an appropriate time to subject the opposition to the same degree of scrutiny.

For some time, editors in the international media have been asking their Rome correspondents: “how does Berlusconi get away with it?” Whatever the answer (and there are many possible ones), the query should now be supplemented by another: “why can’t the opposition in Italy get its act together?” But to answer this one, it will be necessary for non-partisan and independent observers to go beyond some of the more superficial representations of Italy in the foreign media and engage in way with the complexities of the political world that the opposition seeks to govern.

This was the purpose of a one-day conference in the English city of Birmingham on 12 February 2010, organised by the politics and international-studies department at the Open University, openDemocracy and the Italian think-tank Vision. This event - entitled Beyond Berlusconi: Prospects For Italy - was the first time the Italian opposition has been the subject of serious discussion in Britain among journalists, academics and policy-makers.

The event was organised in two parts. The first panel - consisting of Bill Emmott (former editor of the Economist), Daniele Albertazzi (senior lecturer in European media at Birmingham University), Paola Subacchi (research director at Chatham House), Francesco Grillo (director of Vision), and James Newell (professor of politics at Salford University) - left the current Italian “soap opera” far behind in a forensic and absorbing discussion of  the prospects for reforming Italy’s withering economy and frayed governing system. 

Francesco Grillo argued that the departure of Berlusconi – by whatever means – would lead to an “earthquake” in Italian politics; but as the Italian prime minister is the “glue” which holds together the current Italian political settlement, the end of his rule would mean a crisis not only for the government but also for the official opposition in the form of the Democratic Party. Paola Subacchi set out the evidence from OECD and other surveys that the Italian economy was in a longer-term slump that was linked to the inability to develop a meritocratic and open society.

Bill Emmott, who oversaw the Economist’s memorable “unfit to lead Italy” cover just before the 2001 election, emphasised that Berlusconi’s corporatist and anti-liberal political character make him an obstacle to the long-term reform that Italy needs. But the responsibility for the lack of reform is also rooted in the political class as a whole, something exemplified by the continuing role of the centre-left Massimo D’Alema in the Berlusconi saga. James Newell and Daniele Albertazzi each provided a broader political context for understanding Berlusconi’s popularity; the influence of his TV interests, and his ability to present himself as an alternative to the special interests of professional centre-left politicians (almost an “outsider” to the system he adorns), are key factors here. In addition, Albertazzi presented some of the results of his illuminating research on the perspectives of federalist Lega Nord (Northern League) activists in their northern strongholds. 

The conference’s second panel focused more centrally on the opposition. The speakers - who included Andrea Biondi (leader of the Democratic Party’s 100 members in the UK), Charlotte Ross (of Birmingham University) and Francesca Marretta (of Liberazione) - represented a range of perspectives on the “older” politics and the “newer” civil-society groups. This was a healthy reminder that the “idea” of the opposition contains social movements and independent initiatives as well as the more traditional political parties (among them legatees of the previous communist and Christian Democrat parties, and the radical left).

A focus on the opposition to Silvio Berlusconi suggests also a need to look at the social faultlines in Italian life that have been among the sources of its weakness and his enduring power; and to identify the political, cultural and intellectual resources which may drive the kind of society Italy needs to become in the post-Berlusconi era. The impact of the “postmodern” media which Berlusconi has intuitively understood but which so far has been a mystery to those of his opponents still wedded to the era and practices of “mass politics” is another key area of inquiry. There is room here to expand the understanding of “politics” as well as “opposition”, for amid a sterile official landscape Italy has a strong tradition of civil-society movements - with satirists, bloggers, film-directors and actors amongst its most prominent current figures - and they at times appear to be the sole opposition to a decayed political class.

More broadly, it can be argued that Italy’s rich political history, strong artisanal and artistic traditions, regional identities, small family businesses and many successful technological innovations mean that it simply deserves better than its present crop of political leaders. But the implication is that a serious alternative to Berlusconi won’t emerge by itself, but will be built only if it can embrace these very positive aspects of Italian culture and make them part of its own “cause”.

Wanted: answers

Before the Birmingham conference we asked around 100 experts on Italian politics in Britain and Italy to suggest questions which could be put to the opposition. The conference discussion narrowed these down to ten. Together they invite a serious engagement with what Italy “beyond Berlusconi” might look like - and how to get there.

These are the ten questions to the Italian opposition: 

1) What political values do you hold other than anti-Berlusconism? 

2) Why didn’t the centre-left pass legislation regulating conflicts of interest when it was in office?   

3) What is your alternative vision of Italy and what idea of social justice does it incorporate?  

4) What is your view of globalisation and how do you see Italy’s role in it? 

5) How will you increase meritocracy and further the prospects of young people, in light of the letter of Pier Luigi Celli (the former director of RAI, the public broadcaster) in which he advised his son to leave Italy? 

6) Will you introduce a series of reforms of the political system on the numbers of politicians, legal immunity and expenditure for political parties? 

7) Is it possible to present the sense of an official opposition without the existence of a shadow cabinet, or a government-in-waiting? 

8) Why is there no interest in or ability to use the new media? 

9) If you had a billion euros of extra resources available how would you use it? 

10) Do you have an “Obama” figure capable of challenging Berlusconi on the grounds of charisma and popularity, and who at the same time can create an alternative vision the electorate will support? 

The ten questions have already been published in four national newspapers in Italy - and provoked a response from Enrico Letta, the deputy leader of the Democratic Party (see "Ecco le 10 risposte a Open Democracy", La Stampa, 15 February 2010). We hope more responses will follow as part of the vital debate on Italy’s future. 

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