Across Europe, as a result of the political establishment’s multiple failures in tackling the social instability caused by the ongoing economic crisis, electorates feel increasing alienated by established political parties. The latest European elections have underlined the general growth of right-wing populism across the continent in response to profound feelings of powerlessness and deep disenchantment with the old politics and the traditional party system.
In a break from the pattern, the local election in Italy has been a disastrous political defeat for Berlusconi despite his attempt to polarize and radicalize the entire campaign against opponents, instituting a permanent siege against the institutions of the country. The vote also signals a defeat of Berlusconi’s attempt to manipulate traditional fears of minorities by accusing his opponents of turning Milan, his hometown, into an "Islamic" city overrun by Roma Gypsies and other immigrants.
Berlusconi’s defeat in Milan represents the most pointed instance of this election cycle’s more general significance. Milan is not only one of the largest and most important European metropolitan areas. It is the Italian laboratory for political and cultural trends, as well as an economic engine. For centuries Milan has anticipated what will occur in the rest of the country. It has seen uprisings, the birth of the Socialist Party, and the growth of futurism. Mussolini and Craxi rose and fell there. The Northern League and Berlusconi were both born there. Losing Milan means much more than losing any other big city.
The history of Italian politics shows that the loss of Rome or Naples does not spell the end of a political career. But if you lose Milan, you have lost everything. And Berlusconi has lost dramatically against a Leftist coalition, which has been able to speak freely to civil society. Leftist candidates were outsiders selected through the process of primary elections, whose candidacies represented a triumph of the real concerns of the citizenry. As a result, the Left was able to gain general consensus beyond its traditional electorate. In this sense, Italy stands as a bellwether to the rest of Europe, because at a moment of structural crisis in society, brought on by social and economic instability, the Left can still defeat the threat of populism when it finds candidates and programmes that speak to the real concerns of people.
However, Europeans should consider the fact that Berlusconi did not only consistently use his economic power to quietly extend his political control and his grip on the media. He also understood that the way to manage consensus was to dictate the agenda for the country through his media companies. The result was a radical distortion of the law in the name of so-called ‘popular sovereignty’, which ushered in the end of the separation of powers, the mortification of all forms of 'public' institutions, and ultimately the creation of a new populist-authoritarian system, from which any opposition was marginalized.
In this way, Berlusconi has been the symptom not only of a dysfunctional State, which manifestly exemplifies the failure of media independence and state regulation, but also of the basic disenchantment of Italians with liberal democracy. By creating a dramatic and experimental laboratory for testing alternative models of political order based on unrestricted media control, Italy has consciously deviated from the democratic ideal.
Certainly Berlusconi has become one of the key controversial political figures of our time. He also offers the chance for all to observe the risks to democracy of any unlimited media ownership concentration. But Italy is not alone in this. Elsewhere in Europe, Europeans looking to another media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, have been able to view how media concentration is a blatant threat to media pluralism, diversity and quality of journalism. In addition, Murdoch's empire today exercises formidable influence not only on the freedom of journalism but also on the political system and society of European countries.
In another case, the recently enacted media law in Hungary, brought in by populist leader Viktor Orbán, poses a serious risk, because it attempts to control the media and to impose heavy fines for vague infractions, including coverage that is deemed ‘unbalanced, or offensive to human dignity or common morals’. The EU must be vigilant and act to reign in these incidents of erosion of democracy in the "media sphere". The EU has to implement its capacities for action against media control, establishing new rules that forever remove any conflicts of interest, in order to ensure the survival of a free media.
Today, Europeans have the opportunity to learn about the risk of media populism in the aftermath of this Italian misfortune. But the regression of democratic life to media populism is not exclusively a lesson for Italians. That is why I suggest that Berlusconi and Berlusconism be judged not as a “morbus italicus” but rather a “contemporary illness”, which Italy was the first to suffer.
What lessons can then be learned? Electoral results show that across Europe the vast majority of centrist, mainstream parties are in crisis, largely due to social and economic problems. At the same time, populist parties have been able to capitalise in numerous European countries on the insecurities of working and middle classes in the face of economic changing circumstances to mobilise a conservative bloc.
But as Antonio Gramsci wrote, however, historical phases of transition are always ambivalent: on the one hand, they can facilitate the emergence of authoritarian syntheses; on the other, the very closeness between politics and social conditions increases the chances for new conceptions, cultural synthesis and political creativity to emerge.
Leftist parties across Europe have to reconsider their modality of dialogue with civil society. The selection of independent candidates through primary elections has emerged as a winning political practice to gain consensus beyond the traditional Italian leftist electorate. The plurality of those independent candidates made Italy exceptional with respect to the other European countries. Thus, the Left has to open up to civil society and social movements such as Les Indignados. It is only by developing diverse mechanisms of political legitimation and securing a social base that progressives have a chance to defeat populism across Europe.