Italy's election: no laughing matter

Geoff Andrews
1 February 2006

The Italian general election, now set for 9 April 2006, will be one of the most important of the last sixty years. It will also be one of the dirtiest. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's richest man and prime minister, is currently trailing by an average 6% in opinion polls – but he is not going to vacate Palazzo Chigi without a fight. Many believe that if Il Cavaliere were to lose the election he would face a surge of legal cases brought on grounds of alleged corruption and attempts to bribe judges. In power, Berlusconi has created his own architecture of parliamentary privilege and immunity; once defeated, this protection would slip away.

This is why he has been so belligerent in his attacks on the opposition. For the last five years he has sustained a consistent tirade against Jacobin judges, subversive intellectuals and communist conspirators. The television stations he controls have removed comedians from the airwaves, and his legal teams have dished out frequent writs to authors and critics on grounds of "defamation". In December, his Casa delle Libertà (House of Liberties) coalition even rushed through changes to the electoral system, in a bid to keep his unpopular government in power. Meanwhile, with massive media resources at his disposal, he has been able to taunt the opposition, while benefiting from meticulous coverage of his own achievements.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After BerlusconiPluto, 2005) (

Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:

"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)

"Bossi's – and Berlusconi's – last shout? "(August 2003)

"Bologna's lesson for London" (August 2005)

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking, please consider respondingopenDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue in our forums – and supporting

A fragile opposition

Berlusconi's latest attack, launched by one of his own newspapers, both questions the capabilities of the opposition and sets a rancorous tone for the campaign weeks ahead. Il Giornale published transcripts of a telephone conversation between Piero Fassino, the leader of the Democratici di Sinistra and Antonio Fazio, the governor of Italy's central bank, after allegations of insider trading and abuse of office. In the recorded phone conversation Fassino tells Consorte (who is currently under investigation): "So then. We're the bosses of a bank". (Left Democrats / DS), Italy's biggest opposition party, and Giovanni Consorte, chairman of Unipol, an insurance company in the control of Italy's co-operative movement. Unipol had recently been involved in a takeover controversy that had led to the resignation of

Berlusconi's tactic here was to show that the centre-left was no different from his own government: that they, too, have trouble separating politics and business. To some extent this is a desperate act of a fading and discredited leader. After all, Berlusconi has not only become a joke around Europe, with one gaffe followed by another, but his claim that he would make ordinary Italians richer has also backfired. Those who were less concerned about his merits as a statesman than his prowess as a salesman have become disillusioned. As the Economist reported in November, Italy's economy is in a "long, slow decline".

Yet the Fassino affair has also exposed Italy's centre-left opposition as fragile, divided, and lacking political conviction. Many leaders, such as former prime minister Massimo D'Alema, were quick to defend Fassino, while others urged him to accept that he had made an error. Apart from creating more divisions within the leadership, the affair has cast doubt on whether the centre-left Unione can provide a credible alternative to Berlusconi. Its ability to project a distinctive alternative is not merely one of policy but whether it has the vision and courage to mobilise an increasingly disaffected electorate.

This is a long-lasting problem that can be traced to the centre-left l'Ulivo (Olive tree) government of 1996-2001, which lacked a clear idea of reform and – critically in light of later developments – failed to legislate against Berlusconi's "conflicts of interest". Intent on pursuing his mission of turning Italy into a "normal country", Massimo D'Alema wasted fruitless hours in negotiating with Berlusconi (then leader of the opposition) in a bicameral commission which would supposedly clear the way for a conventional two-party system, in which his own DS and Berlusconi's Forza Italia! would be the main players. In exchange for Berlusconi's cooperation, D'Alema agreed to curb the power of the judges.

In the event Berlusconi walked away from the negotiations, leaving D'Alema's reforms in tatters and his own interests untouched. Lessons don't seem to have been learned, however. Not only are murky deals evident once again, but misguided assumptions that normal rules can apply in the contemporary Italian case continue to pre-occupy centre-left leaders. One example is the attempt by Romano Prodi, Berlusconi's rival in the forthcoming election, to mould his disparate coalition of ex-communists, socialists and Christian democrats into a new Democratic Party.

More serious is the credibility afforded to Gianfranco Fini and his "post-fascist" Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) party. Antonio Polito, editor of the centre-left Riformista, has even compared Fini – Italy's foreign minister, and Berlusconi's likely successor as leader of the Italian right – to Tony Blair and John F Kennedy. True, foreign secretary Fini is a clever politician who has attempted to position his party alongside the mainstream European right. A closer look at the bigger picture, however, makes nonsense of this objective. Part of his party's role in government has been to rewrite the past by undermining the role of the anti-fascist resistance. The latest parliamentary bill, which honours soldiers who served in Mussolini's fascist republic of Saló with the same status as Italian partisans, follows changes to the school history curriculum and refusal to celebrate 25 April, Italy's national day of liberation from fascism.

A creative dissent

For a more intellectually honest and imaginative opposition capable of rousing civil society, we have to turn to Italy's artists, intellectuals and citizen movements. An early example of this was Nanni Moretti's intervention in February 2002, when he told a packed crowd in Piazza Navona that "we will never win" with the current crop of centre-left leaders seated behind him. This led to the Girotondi movement which has been crucial in keeping the bigger picture of Berlusconi's "conflicts of interest" on the political agenda.

If the big movements of 2002 – which, in addition to the Girotondi, included the workers' opposition to labour laws and the anti-global and peace movements – are not as strong as they were, then the most creative dissent continues to come from the theatres and piazzas. In early January 2006, the comedian Sabina Guzzanti hosted a convention in Rome of artists and citizens committed to an alternative television system. Teatro Ambra Jovinelli was packed as Italian's best known comedians one by one pledged their support for a new public-service TV station, free of censorship and no longer monopolised by either Berlusconi's own Mediaset or RAI, the public broadcaster which had long been under the control of politicians, even before Berlusconi took power.

Guzzanti knows something about censorship. In 2003, her satirical programme Raiot (pronounced riot) was taken off the air after only one episode after her employers at RAI 3 were worried by Mediaset's complaint of "lies and extremely serious insinuations". For the next programme, Guzzanti was forced to retreat to a Rome theatre.

Also in openDemocracy on Italy under Silvio Berlusconi:

Giovanni Bachelet, "A manifesto from Italy" (May 2002)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "In memory of Franco Modigliani"
(October 2003)

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

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy? "
(June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (August 2005)

In 2005, however, she responded with her film, Viva Zapatero!, a political, Michael-Moore-like documentary, in which she tells her personal story of censorship in the context of the wider eradication of civil liberties in Italy. The film shows her interviewing members of the government as well as comedians from other countries. It won a fifteen-minute standing ovation at the Venice film festival and has had a wide viewing in Italy.

Italy's most popular comedian, Beppe Grillo, who has also had to find other ways to work, recently started a "clean up parliament" campaign, in which he named twenty-three Italian politicians who had been convicted of criminal offences. This appeared as a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune, with Grillo asking if there is "another state in the world in which 23 members of parliament have been convicted of a variety of crimes and yet are allowed to sit in parliament and represent their citizens?" His remarkably successful blog has become an innovative vehicle of dissent.

Such creative forms of political intervention are occasionally accompanied by the irruption of artists into the electoral field itself: the dramatist and Nobel laureate Dario Fo's effort to win the centre-left candidature for the mayoralty of Milan is the most recent example. More significant than such campaigns is that the comedians have breathed new life into Italy's ailing body politic. This is because they have gone where politicians fear and, in their own way, have asked the right questions.

"Bin Laden can get on TV but I can't", as the subtitle of Daniele Luttazzi's DVD put it. When Italy was ranked fifty-third in a worldwide index of media freedom, Sabina Guzzanti asked her audience: "Did you hear anything about that in the news? But then again, if you had we would not be ranked fifty-third, would we?" It is too early to say who will have the last laugh on 9 April, but Italy's centre-left will have to do more than wait for Berlusconi to make his next gaffe.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData