An Italian “Gotterdammerung”

There are other players to take into account apart from Gianfranco Fini in the latest challenge to Berlusconi’s reign, not least a fickle Italian public and the small matter of parliamentary retirement pensions
Carlo Ungaro
2 September 2010

Has Berlusconi reached the end of the road?

Italians, as the Romans before them, have never really taken their Gods seriously. Even the Greek deities, with all their psychological complexities, were rather trivialized when they entered the Roman Olympus, losing most of their awe-inspiring qualities and becoming, rather, paternal (or maternal) figures – with occasional, conveniently timed, miraculous manifestations - to whom one could entrust one’s health, prosperity or loved ones. Indeed, their qualities greatly resembled those attributed to present day Saints in Italy, keeping in mind  in the particularly pagan-oriented Catholicism of most Italians.

A very similar treatment is reserved for political leaders. Even the Pope, as temporal leader for about fifteen centuries, was chased out of Rome amid popular jubilation more than once, only to be welcomed back just as jubilantly. The last time this happened was rather recently, in 1849, at the proclamation of the glorious but short-lived Roman Republic.

This perhaps explains the success of populist, paternalistic leaders – the last one, Bettino Craxi, ending his days a fugitive from justice in Tunisia, after a long stint as Prime Minister. The same public which had welcomed him tumultuously, finally threw coins at him in the street: a gesture of ultimate contempt for a theatre loving people like the Italians.

This also explains the complexities and paradoxes of Italian political life. Voter turnout in Italy is one of the world’s highest, but the concept of “anti-politica” repeatedly appears. This appeal to the jaded palate of Italian voters was most recently exploited by the popular Genoese comedian, Beppe Grillo who, in the name of “anti-politica”, has had some success at the polls.

Recent events, as reported also in Open Democracy, seemed to indicate a growing rift in Mr. Berlusconi’s ruling coalition, mainly at the hands of the Lower House president, Gianfranco Fini. There was much talk of a Government crisis and the need to call early elections, though at the moment all this seems to have been overcome. But has it? We need to try and fathom what is really going on.

It has to be understood, firstly, that in Italy success at the polls does not imply stability or, for that matter, efficiency in Government, no matter how large a majority has been achieved.

In no context other than Italy, would a Government in the hands of a popular, rather charismatic figure, with undeniable authoritarian ambitions and a virtual monopoly on  sources of information, who can count on what we call a “Bulgarian majority” in Parliament  appear unable to govern and  face the possible imminent disintegration of a structure which seemed indestructible only two years ago.

It would be mistaken to attribute this to the work of the political opposition, which is  divided and ineffectual, still involved in ideological disputes reminiscent of the Cold War years and which fears a government crisis even more than Berlusconi. In fact, if the Prime Minister could call a snap election, he would most probably beat them with one hand tied behind his back (As Fiorello La Guardia, legendary Mayor of New York, once said “I could run on a laundry ticket and beat these political bums any time”).

It would seem, therefore, that, actually, Berlusconi himself would not be all that opposed to an early election, also keeping in mind his firm hold – a virtual monopoly – on almost all the Television channels. But constitutionally he is not allowed to call for one, unless his Government is defeated in a vote of confidence. Even then, however, the President of the Republic, Napolitano, would have to ask the political parties to attempt the formation of a “transitional” Government, which would be a “de facto” defeat for the Prime Minister..

The situation would appear confused unless one keeps in mind that Italian politics are conducted along lines reminiscent of the “Commedia dell’Arte”, in which set characters, or “masks” (e.g. Arlecchino, Pulcinella etc.,the cultural forebears of “Punch and Judy”) play preordained roles which leave little or no room for diversion. In this framework, while trying to understand whether Berlusconi has really reached the end of the road, one has to keep an eye on all the other characters, firstly, of course, the sycophants in his own entourage, each of whom is ready to stab him in the back, but also among the mainstream opposition and coalition figures.

The larger – more or less centrist – opposition groups are loud in their condemnation of the  “regime”, but when it comes to action they fall short of causing a Government crisis, because, they say, of the “difficult” economic situation. In reality, they fear an electoral confrontation because they feel that in spite of Berlusconi’s obvious weakness, he could still come out on top, and, even if at the head of a weak Government could rule the country for years to come..

Who would benefit, then, from a Government crisis? Certainly, among the Governing coalition,the “Northern League”. Counting on its simplistic xenophobic, racist, anti-Muslim and, above all, “federalist” message this incredibly successful political party would, as in all past occasions, show large gains and thus increase its grip on the apparently powerful but in reality hapless Prime Minister. Among the outsiders, a maverick personality such as  Beppe Grillo could benefit, as well as the pugnacious former Public Prosecutor, Antonio Di Pietro whose actions, some twenty years back, triggered the “Clean Hands” movement and brought about the end of the so-called “First Republic”.

Certainly, within the coalition Berlusconi’s one-time principal ally, Gianfranco Fini has been the prime promoter of the crisis. He has to tread carefully, however, because elections called too early would damage his position perhaps irrevocably and he would be added to the vast number of political has-beens fallen in the wake of Berlusconi’s irrepressible political personality.

What about Berlusconi himself? In any other country he would be politically finished, beleaguered as he is by corruption charges and episodes of sexual misconduct, with many of his closest allies facing trial or having actually been handed prison sentences.

It has to be added that, Italy being the unique political puzzle that it is, many are trying to read the signs and attempting to understand the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church, which, in reality, has been issuing mixed signals, many of them, however, critical of Berlusconi.

The unspoken question, however is “after Berlusconi, who?”

The feeling is that Berlusconi could survive, and that, quite possibly, nothing will happen simply because none of the protagonists will want to cast the first stone. There is also an additional fact which is seldom mentioned:  to claim a retirement pension – a not indifferent sum of money for life – parliamentarians have to serve for thirty consecutive months, and some time must still elapse for them to reach that goal..

If Berlusconi is finally brought down, he will not go quietly, but in all his glory, leaving behind a fondly nostalgic memory of high living, low politics and a bevy of stunning ex-starlets, some in Cabinet positions. As they say in show business, a difficult act to follow.

In Italy, even the Twilight of the Gods has a comic opera setting.

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