The Berlusconi brief

Tom Burgis
1 December 2005

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In October 2003, Silvio Berlusconi unveiled to his adoring public yet another of his enormous talents. Snatching a few quiet hours from a seemingly incessant schedule of book-cooking, the Italian premier penned a set of lyrics to some Neapolitan love songs. “Without you, without you, the day is empty and the night is sad”, wrote the man who used to croon for his supper on cruise ships. “Tomorrow and the day after will be beyond time and will belong just to us.”

Quite apart from the offence caused to Neapolitans – many of whom discuss their dear leader in terms of the most remarkably colourful contempt – Berlusconi’s lyricism may have been a window onto his politics. He seems to have a romantic attachment to power. And, given the passion with which he has denuded his country’s democratic equipment in recent weeks, he is quite a Lothario. It is that unbridled lust that has seduced openDemocracy’s readers and won Berlusconi the inaugural Bad Democracy Award with 34% of the vote (only slightly less than his projected share in the next Italian election).

“He has done lasting damage to Italy’s democratic institutions. There are very few that haven’t taken a battering. He’s eroded the credibility of parliament and the judiciary”, says Tana de Zulueta, a senator for the Green Party group in Italy’s senate and perennial thorn in the prime-ministerial side. “People don’t respect him but they obey him. We are going to have a rubber-stamp government on the Uzbek model in Italy.”

Since September, Berlusconi has been gathering power unto himself. There is even speculation in some quarters that he is considering swapping that bandanna for the laurels of the Caesars. Reforms thrust through the legislature include granting the prime minister powers to dissolve parliament – though, naturally, without granting parliament any such hold over the premier. It is the kind of megalomania normally associated with the owners of football clubs.

Also in openDemocracy on the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi:

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

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

Geoff Andrews, “The life and death of Pier Paulo Pasolini” (November 2005)

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Over three years in which the average Italian has got poorer, and with the national economy looking decidedly queasy, Berlusconi’s personal value has doubled. Fortune’s 2005 rich list named him the twenty-fifth richest man in the world – worth around $12 billion, which is roughly the equivalent of the Italian budget. Having such inordinate wealth can be a drain on one’s time, so Berlusconi has passed an amnesty rendering the prime minister immune from prosecution. Mercifully, he will now have to spend fewer of his precious days fending off myriad accusations of embezzlement.

But that alone may not prove enough to prolong Berlusconi’s affair with elected power. After eleven years aboard the Silvio rollercoaster – he spent fraught months at the helm in 1994 – the philandering Italian public seems determined to get off. A recent poll showed support for Romano Prodi’s centre-left opposition bloc running at 51%, ten points ahead of Berlusconi. His centre-right alliance lost twelve of fourteen regional elections in April 2005 and has gone down in eight by-elections on the bounce.

Faced with the likelihood of defeat in next April’s general election, Berlusconi has pulled off a move beyond even the most conniving of his tacticians at AC Milan. He has changed the rules. With fewer than six months to go until the nation goes to the polls, Berlusconi has moved the goalposts, introducing a system of proportional representation (PR) calculated to boost Forza Italia’s hopes and redrawing constituency boundaries with barely concealed potential for gerrymandering. And, if even that fails, he is pumping over €1 million euro ($1.18 million) into every marginal seat.

“The new system is designed to mitigate his defeat”, says de Zulueta. “He’s hedging his bets. Things were looking very bad for him under first-past-the-post. He’s seen what happened in Germany – that a second large bloc can get close to power under PR.

“The key is the media. That is the beginning and the end of his power. He is in power and remains in power because he controls the media. The very notion of media independence has been undermined

Beside a man who owns or controls a large chunk of Italy’s media organisations - the holding company Fininvest, Il Giornale newspaper, Italy’s largest publishing house Mondadori, and three television channels – one might have thought that openDemocracy would be cowed. None of it. We have informed Signor Berlusconi of his accolade.

Don’t miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:

Tom Burgis introduces the awards and outlines the first nominees

Readers bite back

By way of refreshing contrast, let us turn for a moment to a few of your comments and criticisms of the first month’s award.

“Bullshit”, writes Diego Ossa of the nomination of Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe Velez. “Why do you hate so much those who fight communists and terrorists?” And hats off to Elsie Eyaku, who spots that the Lord’s Resistance Army is Ugandan, not Sudanese, and notes that the reference to the “parade of 4,000 topless virgins” from which King Mswati III selected his latest bride was less than complimentary to Swaziland’s annual ceremonial reed dance.

Leon Craig, meanwhile, writes: “Your inclusion of John Bolton is absurd, the reasoning for doing so is pathetic.” The nomination of Washington’s man in New York also draws the ire of Jawaid Bazyar. “I'm supposed to take you guys seriously when you include John Bolton in a list with an African despot?” He would have preferred Georges Galloway and Soros and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. “Failing to mention these brigands, but including John Bolton, clearly shows your bias against true free peoples and towards any fascist who claims to be a socialist.”

And so to our latest despotic crop, all of whom share a signal distaste for foreigners, especially those who happen to be young, drowning, not Russian, white, Muslim or Jewish. Again, openDemocracy’s readers have surpassed themselves in the global reach of their wrath, and our nominees range from a central Asian autocrat to a tough guy from Down Under. We invite you to vote for whichever has most grievously offended your diplomatic sensibilities in the past month. Once the results are in, we shall endeavour to have the victor wiped off the map.

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