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Silvio Berlusconi: endgame, prolonged

A narrow confidence vote in Italy’s chamber of deputies extends the turbulent career of Italy’s scandal-ridden prime minister. But the corrosion of Italian democracy under “Berlusconismo” goes wider than one man, says Geoff Andrews.
Geoff Andrews
14 December 2010

Silvio Berlusconi has survived - just. On successive days, 13-14 December 2010, the prime minister won a vote of confidence in both houses of the Italian parliament (senate and chamber of deputies), which if lost would have led to his resignation and/or a new general election. His majority in the senate was comfortable thanks to the preponderance of his allies there; but the margin in the lower house was just three votes (314-311), reflecting the split in Berlusconi’s ruling coalition in summer 2010 after his former leading ally Gianfranco Fini - who transformed his post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance / AN) into a conservative party before merging with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to become the Il Popolo della Libertà (People of Liberty / PdL) in 2008 - finally broke with him.

It is a strange sort of victory for a prime minister so discredited and shamed by scandal, and whose record in government in his third period in office since 1994 is meagre. It reveals his determination to use every means to cling on to power (including reported buying of opposition votes in parliament), and confirms that the chief architect of Italy’s enduring crisis of governance has nothing left to offer his country but his own fading presence and the threat of financial chaos if he departs the stage.

But the combustible atmosphere in which the confidence-vote was won and lost also highlights the flaws of other Italian political actors. If Silvio Berlusconi is irredeemably tarnished by the manner in which he has ruled Italy, his capacity to remain in office also reflects the way that Berlusconismo has changed Italy.

The last days

The end of Silvio Berlusconi’s political career has been heralded more often than those of any other Italian leader in modern history (see "Silvio Berlusconi, the long goodbye", 21 October 2010). The strong sense of decay surrounding him remains pervasive, yet his day of destiny has once more been postponed. What explains this endless dialectic of shame and survival? A comparison with the twilight periods of two earlier “end of regime” figures is instructive.

The first is Benito Mussolini. The end of the fascist leader's twenty-year rule was played out in 1943 in a mire of national humiliation, violence and revulsion, as he retreated to lead the puppet-state of Salo` on Lake Garda whence he issued grandiose statements of desperate populism as the allies and partisans gained ground. In the ignoble finale of an inglorious era, his body was left hanging in Piazzale Loreto in Milan.

The second is Bettino Craxi, the socialist prime minister (1983-87) who was convicted of bribery and corruption in 1994 and avoided imprisonment by fleeing to Tunisia (where he died in 2000). Craxi, the head of a long list of Italy’s governing elite who fell in the mani pulite ("clean hands") investigations, defended himself by saying that the tangentopoli ("bribesville") system he had exploited was endemic in Italian society and politics: he was only doing what everyone else did (see "Bettino Craxi's legacy, Italy's misery", 3 February 2010).

The collapse of Italy’s political class in the wake of mani pulite signalled a chance for a new beginning - even perhaps the "second republic".  It was missed. The elite learned nothing from the episode, and if anything has become even more consolidated. Indeed, a symptom of its retrenchment, and of the fading of the process of reform and retrospection, is that attempts to rehabilitate Mussolini and Craxi have been made.

In this historical perspective, Silvio Berlusconi’s ability to stay in charge for so long also highlights the main difference between his “last days” and these predecessors': namely, that he continues to define the agenda, and remains a pivotal player in deciding Italy’s future. There are three principal factors in this.

Democracy for sale

The first is that to a great extent Silvio Berlusconi has remade Italy in his own image. Berlusconismo has corroded the heart of Italian public life: exploiting everyday fears and prejudices, making a political virtue of furbizia (cunning), and normalising the language of the ruthless businessman over the values of democracy and the constitution. It is a political regime which has become characterised by the view that everyone has their price.

Any doubts over the effect Berlusconi has had on constitutional politics in Italy are dispelled by events leading up to the votes on 13-14 December. Most shocking of all is that in his desperate bid to remain in power the prime minister is alleged to have "bought" the votes of two of his opponents, Domenico Scilipoti and Antonio Razzi of the Italy of Values - the opposition party most consistently scornful of the corrupt nature of Berlusconi’s rule, and one led by Antonio Di Pietro, the former mano pulite investigator who interrogated Craxi.

Even foreign correspondents who have enjoyed the theatre-cum-soap- opera of Silvio Berlusconi now admit the more sinister undertones of his rule amidst the daily degeneration of Italy’s democracy (see "Italy's creeping fascism", 19 February 2009). His deals with Vladimir Putin (including the financial benefits exposed in the leaked Unted States diplomatic documents) and the sex-parties revealed by former escorts again display Berlusconi's penchant for macho-style leadership, an obsession with power and a disdain for normal procedures of accountability.

The flawed statesman

The second factor is that Berlusconi's ally-turned-rival Gianfranco Fini has insufficient support at present to push through a realignment of the Italian right. Before the crucial vote, Fini attempted to create the sense that he would be able to form a new centre-right government, perhaps headed by finance minister Giulio Tremonti. But his Future and Freedom Party is little more than a rump of thirty-to-forty parliamentarians who defected with him from Berlusconi's Il Popolo della Libertà; and he remains bitterly resented by former post-fascist allies.

Fini's pre-vote manoeuvrings show him to be driven by the old politics of deals and promises with politicians who still owe their own political careers to Berlusconi himself; and his overblown claims to be a statesman acting in the national interest are undercut by the persistent strenght of the regionalist Lega Nord (Northern League), whose momentum is ever at odds with the statist and centralising tendencies of the post-fascists. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Lega Nord, is now Berlusconi's closest ally: he warmly applauded the prime minister's relatively sober speech when opening the confidence debate in the senate.

This latest episode has demonstrated that Fini remains entrapped by the personal tussle between himself and his former ally. It is a mark of the weakening of his position that his grouping offered the prime minister a compromise: in effect, support for Berlusconi if the latter stood down and then formed a new government with a different programme. Berlusconi rejected such a "diktat".

Gianfranco Fini is left once more defined by his more powerful and successful rival, and unable to chart a path beyond Berlusconismo.   

The null opposition

The third factor in Silvio Berlusconi's endurance is the failure of the feeble Italian opposition. This is manifested in its inability since the mid-1990s to pass serious reforms when in office; to forge significant alliances; to produce a leader with broad and sustained appeal (with the partial exception of Romano Prodi); and to articulate even a tentative vision of what a post-Berlusconi Italy might be like is in itself remarkable (see "Beyond Berlusconi: ten questions to Italy's opposition", 15 February 2010).

If Berlusconi had been forced from office on 14 December, the leaders of the centre-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) would have raised a self-congratulatory brindisi (toast). Yet Pierluigi Bersani, Massimo D’Alema and others have played only a minimal part in opposing Berlusconi, and have no creative strategy either to replace him or to reform Italy.

Nichi Vendola, the leader of the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Left Ecology Freedom / SEL) party, is the one prominent leftwing figure whose support has grown in public-opinion polls. Vendola, the president of the southern region of Puglia, has remained a principled opponent of corruption, and has managed to stay clear of the retreats and duplicities of other centre-left leaders; hs political profile - a Catholic, gay, former communist - has won the attention of many outside Italy. But he faces an uneven battle to win the support of Democratic Party apparatchiks, and to achieve a position where his ideas for reforming Italy can be tested. 

An unfinished crisis

The confidence vote in itself solves nothing. Italy’s political paralysis continues. So do the deep worries over Italy’s financial position, and immediate fears that the country could be embroiled in the eurozone crisis.

The street-protests in the vote's aftermath show that Italians are prepared to mobilise against what they see as a shaming leader - and by implication to challenge the feebleness of the parliamentary opposition. But the immediate outcome of this stage in Italy’s agony is that the emblematic figure of Silvio Berlusconi has won a little more political breathing-space - and has yet more cards to play.

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