Milan’s Piazza Duomo, the vast cathedral square in the centre of the great north Italian city, was packed on 30 May 2011 with jubilant supporters of the opposition to Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister. Silvio Berlusconi. They were celebrating what many see as a turning-point: the first electoral victory over the ruling party in Milan during Berlusconi's time in power, as the the opposition challenger and local lawyer Giuliano Pisapia ousted incumbent mayor Letizia Moratti.
What made the result seem historic was that it was on Berlusconi’s home territory, the place where he built his media empire and launched his political career; and that the leader had personally staked his own future on the outcome by declaring a leftwing victory “unthinkable”. But the unthinkable had happened. A young activist told me in Piazza Duomo on the night of the defeat: “Berlusconi’s political career started in Milan and it will also finish here. I’m sure of that”.
Milan was a major defeat for Berlusconi, but even worse was to follow. The referendum over the weekend of 12-13 June on the issues of nuclear energy, the “legitimate impediment” law and the privatisation of (and profits from) water also resulted in decisive margins against the government’s favoured options. Berlusconi’s government had opposed the decision to hold the referendum, the media he controls had given it little coverage, and it seemed in danger of falling short of the required 50% quorum.
In the event it easily exceeded this figure, and Italians voted overwhelmingly (by over 90% on all four questions) to reject nuclear energy (and, as many see it, Berlusconi himself). The referendum prompted more political obituaries of Berlusconi, calls for his resignation, and criticism from his allies (notably Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord [Northern League], which could yet bring the government down; the Lega is demanding tax cuts and designated ministers for the north as condition of its continued support).
The Berlusconi problem
The prime minister is beset by scandal, including the indignity of weekly court appearances on charges ranging from corruption to procuring sex with an underage prostitute, and faces increasing pressure from his allies as well as his emboldened opponents. There is no doubt that he is at his most vulnerable at any time since he first entered politics in 1994.
Yet his recent problems notwithstanding, Berlusconi remains resilient and convinced that he is politically invincible. “After defeats I always come back three times stronger”, he announced after the Milan setback. His reputation as the “great survivor” has been hard-won and well-resourced: it derives from a mixture of Berlusconi’s unashamed use of his vast media empire to deliver his political message, his ability to drive through parliamentary legislation to effectively put himself above the law, and the sheer arrogance of power.
In the torrid atmosphere of Italian high politics under Berlusconi, it is his sexual politics which arguably more than anything else underpin his mode of governing. The evidence is clear in the so-called “bunga-bunga” sex-parties which featured him lavishing gifts and favours on young women (and in several cases, allegedly offering them seats in parliament; and indeed, his equal-opportunities minister is a former topless dancer on one of his TV shows).
The fact that half of the Italian population remains indifferent to his excesses reflects both the way in which he has redefined Italy in his own image, and the lack of transparency in Europe’s most degenerate body-politic. Berlusconi’s sexual politics illustrate perfectly the way in which private interests have dominated public life, at a grave cost to Italian democracy.
The DSK solution
The way in which the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has proceeded should serve as a model for those contemplating an Italy beyond Berlusconi. The swift arrest and detention of Strauss-Kahn on charges of attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid has taken many people by surprise. Whether he is guilty or not, the whole issue is having a profound effect on attitudes to sexual politics in France; in the aftermath, other leading politicians now face similar charges.
This is in sharp contrast to the situation of the Italian premier, who has so far survived accusations of mafia links and corruption as well as charges of sexual relations with a minor. In the morass that is Italy’s public life, it is clear that Italy’s political culture has helped protect Berlusconi from faster and more rigorous examination. The political class, despite growing criticism from citizens, still appears an untouchable elite.
The “DSK” affair has also produced an unfavourable comparison between Italy’s ponderous legal system and the speed and transparency of the American system of justice, founded as it is on the important constitutional principle that all - even the most powerful - are subject to the same laws. This has become anathema in Berlusconi’s Italy. The swift and apparently transparent IMF procedures which led to Strauss-Kahn’s early resignation from his position there and set up the process for choosing his successor should also be regarded as positive outcome.
The problem in Italy is not only that justice moves so slowly, but that Berlusconi himself - who should by every measure be on the defensive, facing humiliation and disgrace as a result of his behaviour - has been leading a powerful counter-attack against the judges. With stunning chutzpah, he even claims to be the victim of media bias.
If the normal, transparent, liberal-democratic procedures seen in regard to Strauss-Kahn were applied in Italy, they would amount to a revolution.
This is the challenge that should now be taken up if Italian democracy is to be revivified. In many ways, the result in Milan and the referendum poll represent a victory for Italian democracy. But how Italy now deals with Berlusconi at his most vulnerable will be the real test of whether a true wind of change has begun to sweep across the country.
Perhaps, then, Milan - the venue for Berlusconi’s weekly court appearances as well as his home city - does offer seeds of optimism.
But it is important to be clear about what these are and what will be needed to turn them into a political flowering. Nicola Bertasi, the Italian activist I met in Piazza Duomo, told me that Giuliano Pisapia won in Milan because he was regarded as a “normal person”. If the Milan election and national referendum is indeed to be the long-awaited decisive turning-point in Silvio Berlusconi’s career, then Italy must rediscover some normal politics.