The hopes and risks of street politics in Italy

Two events that have taken place in the last few days in the streets of Italy have rocked the political stalemate, and exposed some ugly tendencies. What, if anything is the connection between them.
Stefano Zoja
16 December 2009

In recent days Italian politics has been deeply shaken by two very different episodes that took place in the streets. On December 13, at the end of a rally, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was assaulted in the central square of Milan by a madman who threw a statuette of Milan cathedral at his face. Berlusconi fell to the ground, and was rushed to hospital, having sustained a broken nose and two broken teeth. As his blood-masked face appeared in the news, many of his political associates started to blame a ‘climate of hatred’ widespread in Italian politics.

Eight days earlier hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Rome, calling for the prime minister’s resignation. They were brought together in a completely new way for Italian politics. Most of them displayed purple shirts, scarves and flags, as they marched: a brand new colour for Italian politics, a deliberately gaudy hue denoting novelty. After fifteen years of Berlusconi – eight in charge as prime minister – this was the first demonstration organised entirely by civil society: launched on the internet by a group of bloggers and set up by ordinary people with no systematic connections to political parties. Hence, the new, symbolic colour. On the days before the rally around 350,000 people confirmed their support for a so-called, ‘No Berlusconi Day’, on Facebook and other social networks. Remarkably, this translated into turn- out on the street.

The two episodes are not linked and have to be kept separate. Berlusconi’s attacker, Massimo Tartaglia, is known to have been mentally ill for twenty years. Apparently his action was not premeditated. Nonetheless, the degeneration of Italian politics and public debate, the persistence of long-term unresolved conflicts and the rise of populist tendencies cause concern and raise questions. Has an organised and peaceful rally anything in common with the instinctive act of a madman? Who are the ‘purple people’? And why, after fifteen years of ‘berlusconism’, do political conflicts start taking to the streets in such peculiar ways?

The ‘Second Republic’

During the campaign for the last parliamentary elections in 2008, Berlusconi’s main opponent, Walter Veltroni, the leader of the Democratic Party (‘PD’), the last and unrecognizable reincarnation of the old Communist Party (‘PCI’), decided never to mention Berlusconi in his speeches: Veltroni always referred to him as the ‘main representative of the opposing coalition’. The ‘exorcism’ didn’t work and Berlusconi won the elections. But in the process Veltroni also indirectly helped Berlusconi by marginalising other parties in the political spectrum, while heading to a two-party system, which has always been a mirage for Italian politics – and still is. The more the opposition tried to play down Berlusconi’s awkward and lasting presence in Italian politics, the more it lost ground. Paradoxically Berlusconi – and his out-of-fashion anticommunist narratives – appeared stronger than ever, while the main opposition party seemed only to help him along.

However, today’s Berlusconi is not very different from the one that emerged in 1994 as the winner of the elections for the first time, with his new formation ‘Forza Italia’. When Italy’s ‘Second Republic’ began in 1992 people were demanding wide and strong reforms and a moralisation of politics. Through the ‘Mani Pulite’ (‘clean hands’) inquiries the ruling class of the time was wiped out for corruption related crimes. The ‘Christian Democrats’ (‘DC’), the most important political party of the post-war era in Italy, didn’t survive the scandals, while the Communist Party (‘PCI’) started a series of transformations and re-brandings, in search of a new social-democratic identity. In that space of uncertainty and renovation, enter Berlusconi. His opponents say he chose to get into politics because his economic empire was on the brink of collapse and he needed to sort things out. Some of them also add that he entered politics as soon as he secured Sicilian Mafia backing, which brings us back again to the present.

Berlusconi’s anomaly

On the day before the purple demonstration, a Mafia turncoat spoke of Berlusconi’s ties to the criminal organisation. The mobster, Gaspare Spatuzza, who is serving a life sentence for several murders – testified in court that in 1993 his boss Giuseppe Graviano told him that he made a deal with Berlusconi that would provide ‘benefits’ to the Mafia, in exchange for the mob’s support in the 1994 elections. The allegations were made during the appeals trial of senator Marcello Dell’Utri, Berlusconi’s close political associate, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for ties to the Mafia. Berlusconi and Dell’Utri have always strongly rejected such allegations, while Giuseppe Graviano’s brother, Filippo – who is not a supergrass, anyway – recently contested Spatuzza’s testimony. But the investigation is still on and some Berlusconi’s opponents say the 1994 deal was the start of a period of ‘pax mafiosa’ between the political class and the mob.

However, this is only the last of a series of accusations that have been undermining Berlusconi’s public image throughout his career. According to a calculation by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, up to now Berlusconi has been formally charged 16 times on accusations that range from bribery, to corruption and tax-fraud. In the 12 proceedings that have so far made it to judgment, he has not been convicted, which allowed him to claim that he is ‘the most prosecuted man in history’. However, having a look through the list of these proceedings, one must note that the majority of them ended through the statute of limitations, acts of oblivion, or crime depenalisations, which in many cases were made possible via measures issued by his own parliamentary majority. Again, La Repubblica calculated that in these years Berlusconi benefited from 18 ‘ad personam’ laws, part of them related to the proceedings he was involved in, while others favoured his business interests.

This also explains the unending criticisms of Berlusconi’s conflict of interests. His grip on the Italian media and especially television – currently he controls directly or indirectly five out of seven Italian free-to-air tv channels – on the banking and insurance systems, as well as on the real estate industry and the financial sector, are still substantially unregulated. The ‘conflitto d’interessi’ theme after being debated in vain for so long, fails to have any impact on Italian public opinion. So, the Italians who criticise Berlusconi felt almost relieved when the recent sex scandals emerged last summer. But neither the evidence of private parties with young ‘escorts’ – of whose profession, Berlusconi claims, he was unaware – nor the accusations of his ex-wife about him ‘frequenting minors’, seem to have affected his grip on political power, or his image in the eyes of a significant part of the Italian population.

The reasons for the stalemate

Why has Italy failed to produce a strong opposition to a leader who embodies so many contradictions? There seem to be at least two main interwoven threads to explain 15 years of frozen stand-off.

The first one involves society and the media. When Berlusconi came to power in 1994, he owned all the major commercial tv channels. He had done so since the beginning of the eighties. The Italians were used to watching the sit-coms and dramas he imported from the United States, as well as spectacular, often sex-filled, tv shows and quizzes. When he entered politics – starting the so called ‘Seconda Repubblica’ – he borrowed the simple and appealing language of his tv shows and renewed the decades-old and incomprehensible jargon of Italian politics. In what was emerging worldwide as the age of personalised politics, he appeared to many voters as a true, and sometimes charming, innovator.

Moreover, his media empire, which apart from television includes newspapers, magazines and publishing houses, has contributed to partly stifle the availability of free news and independent analysis on the mainstream communication platforms. Today, Italy is ranked 73rd in the 2009 Freedom of the Press report by the American ‘ngo’ Freedom House, and described as a ‘partly free’ country. In all these years Berlusconi could easily spin the news agenda, but he also set the tone of the political debate, through oversimplification and the introduction of a more informal style that his opponents could not imitate.

In these 15 years Italy has lost economic competitiveness in comparison to other western countries, while inner judiciary and cultural struggles went on. Overall, during the ‘Seconda Repubblica’, Berlusconi’s governments – as well as the centre-left ones – didn’t produce any significant reform of the economic system. Italy has been locked in a stalemate. However, public opinion, diseducated by the oversimplification of the political debate, didn’t really notice it. Complicated if important issues have often gone underreported. For example, corruption has been spreading in recent years and it has been calculated that the cost has been 25,000 euros per head to every Italian. Berlusconi shortened the terms for the statute of limitations for this crime and partly depenalised it, but the people didn’t perceive it as a serious problem. Many issues became quite invisible for a large part of the population and, along with this process, Italian public opinion itself became invisible.

The need for an opposition

However, even those who had the necessary information failed to restrain the increasingly visible anomaly. Here comes the second, and more political reason for Italian indolence. Since Berlusconi entered politics, the main opposition parties have been accused by their own supporters of being indulgent and sometimes even too friendly to the ‘Cavaliere’, as some Italians respectfully refer to the prime minister and mogul. After a few years the accusations of centre-left politicians for having hidden common interests with Berlusconi grew. Neither Massimo D’Alema nor Romano Prodi regulated Berlusconi’s conflict of interest when they had the opportunity to do so during their governments in the late nineties. They were strongly criticised by their own voters for this, but when Prodi took office again in 2006 as prime minister, he once again failed to issue any edicts on this matter.

Furthermore, in recent years a new narrative has emerged within the main opposition formations, that ‘anti-berlusconism’ is a losers’ charter. Basically it says: the more you attack Berlusconi, the more you strengthen him. This thinking is accompanied by the grim view that Berlusconi’s personal behaviour, especially as portrayed by his media outlets, has won Italians’ hearts and minds. According to this vision, in a sort of anthropological transformation, many Italians are fond of Berlusconi’s character, admiring his self-confidence and success, and wanting to resemble him more and more. And this is where the political shyness of some opposition leaders coincides with their own fear of having lost touch with the Italians, after more than a decade of Machiavellian videocracy.

So, even in the last, chaotic months the Democratic Party (‘PD’), the main opposition formation, showed no real urgency in forcing Berlusconi out. And that’s why the small ‘Italy of Principles’ party (‘IDV’), a pugnacious formation led by the Antonio Di Pietro, gained such popularity in recent years, for fiercely campaigning against Berlusconi. Di Pietro is a former magistrate, once famous for his inquiries during the ‘Mani pulite’ (‘clean hands’) period. But even Antonio Di Pietro, at the beginning of his campaign, had to draw on the themes and communicative style of another figure who opened the way to a new combative opposition style to Berlusconi. He is Beppe Grillo, an Italian comic and blogger whose website was regarded in recent years as one of the most influential in the world. He filled an empty space in Italian public debate, strongly campaigning against Berlusconi, but also contesting the allegedly widespread political corruption in Italy. His assertive and entertaining style was in a way comparable to that of Berlusconi, but the media he used and the audience he talked to were quite different. His initiatives were said to be highly anti-political by many Italian commentators, but his influence has been extensive on young people and has probably contributed to preparing the ground for the recent protests.

The purple people

Now the time may have come for a wider movement, which can try to grow in the space created by Berlusconi’s many difficulties. It can draw on the practices of the blogosphere, as well as on traditional forms of political protest. Beppe Grillo’s ‘cultural’ importance has been significant, but shouldn’t be overestimated, as many traditional movements and organisations also joined in the purple protest. They were just waiting for a new, louder way to express themselves. But none of these preexisting groups established a leadership over the purple marchers.

The organisers were a group of bloggers, who say they haven’t been influenced by any political formation and claim they are independent. Obviously they could look back to the international experiences of flashmobs or, more practically, to Grillo’s website and audience. But the demonstration was organised by them, while most of the funding was gathered online. And up to now they say they have no leader.

The demonstration brought with it many more novelties. There were few party signs, and they weren’t allowed excessive visibility. Many artists and intellectuals also took part in the march, but none of them became a figurehead for the rally, as sometimes happened in the past. It was a collective demonstration, which involved brand new subjects along with old ones. Some of them also wanted to show their discontent towards the ineffectiveness of the main opposition parties.

Among the protesters there were a lot of young people, who in many cases were taking part in their first political rally. Most of them were between 20 and 30, very enthusiastic and with a querky line in political slogans - lewd jokes about the prime minister were popular. The organizers claimed to have attracted one million people, while police officials put the figure at 90,000. Wherever the truth lies, the organizers say this may be the birth of a civil movement and insist they will increasingly go on questioning the ‘Italian anomaly’.

In some way, these demonstrators can also be regarded as the sons and daughters of the ‘berlusconian age’. They tend to embody an overcoming of politics, they have an assertive attitude, they use a straightforward language and they master communication. The simplicity – and sometimes naivety – of their slogans are the product of 15 years in which the language and concepts of politics have been often oversimplified. Nonetheless – or exactly for this reason – they appear to be effective.

In fact, many of the protesters had no previous political commitment, or any awareness of a political horizon other than that of ‘berlusconism’. What they know, instead, is how to use the internet, the only medium that allows people to circumvent Berlusconi’s communication empire. On the internet they find the news they need, using alternative information websites. They bypass the restrictions of the tv, where 70% of the Italians accrue their knowledge about politics, according to a recent study by Censis. They organise themselves, prepare meetings, choose slogans, promote campaigns - all virtually. Facebook, Twitter and the social media were the platform for their initiatives and contributed to creating a huge fever of expectation around the December 5 demo.

These self-organized youth are the core of what may be known in the near future as the ‘purple people’. Obviously the choice of a noticeable and uncommon colour with no previous political connotation – at least in Italy – echoes the many coloured and spontaneous revolutions that took to the stage in recent years: the orange in Ukraine, the pink in Georgia, up to the green bracelets and bands of the street protests that started in Iran this summer.

Street protests: what’s next?

This symbol of novelty and communication awareness is possibly here to stay through the coming months and years. But the recent assault against Berlusconi may prove disruptive. After months of high-voltage politics and controversies, this assault may mark a new beginning, according to some commentators. The most radical herald the risk of a new period of terrorism, recalling the dramatic events of the seventies, the ‘Anni di piombo’ (the ‘years of lead’), when opposing factions of radical armed groups devastated the country. Now, many opinion-makers appeal to everybody’s sense of responsibility. The common sensation is that something may happen soon in Italy.

In recent years and months there has been a visible degeneration of the language of politics, which many now consider as the prelude to violence. Coarseness and direct insult have been admitted into public debate, and appear frequently on the media. This also may be considered an indirect result of Berlusconi’s attempt over the years to bring politics and its jargon closer to citizens. The personal and accessible relationship between some leaders and their voters has become a core value in Italian politics. But this rise in vulgarity and populist tendencies can also be regarded as just the symptoms of a wider, unresolved conflict, which in fact lies in the fifteen years old ‘berlusconian anomaly’.

So, to look for ‘moral responsibilities’ for Tartaglia’s attack, as some majority’s politicians are doing in these days, may be the beginning of a very slippery slope. The purple people’s demonstration, in all its irreverent tones, surely has nothing to do with Tartaglia’s isolated gesture. However, even in their entirely different intentions and results, the two episodes partly stem from the same climate, the profound and wide discontent of many towards Berlusconi. Two serious risks lie ahead. On one hand, there can be a radicalisation of what can already be described as a ‘conflict’ between those who defend Berlusconi and his opponents. The other risk is that of an exploitation of the assault by some political forces to raise the tension in the country and possibly issue special laws. Hints of measures to be taken to restrict liberties on the web and limit street protests have already been made by some of the majority’s representatives. Apparently, proposals have been made to block Facebook users who have praised Tartaglia and to enhance politicians’ security. But these measures would certainly also hit the purple people, and can only increase tension.

Great uncertainty now also surrounds the ‘purple’ movement. Its identity is still to be consolidated. It almost hasn’t had the time to be born, but already has to face its first big challenge: showing its maturity in such difficult times. Fifteen years of ‘Seconda Repubblica’ and berlusconism have changed the appearance of the country, and it is not clear which part the purple people have to play in this landscape. Their social awareness is higher than average, but their political knowledge and historical experience are very limited, and even their commitment may prove erratic. However, increasingly politics is leaving the palace and turning to the street: so they may become a prominent new subject, as Italy wrestles with putting an end to its stalemate.

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