The test of Silvio Berlusconi’s capacity to endure widespread criticism of his leadership has become more severe than ever over recent months. He remains Italy’s longest serving post-war prime minister (over three separate terms - 1994-95, 2001-06, and from 2008). But the problems surrounding him are mounting.
He has become embroiled in an intense conflict with Gianfranco Fini, his closest political ally since he first entered politics in 1994. His government has been engulfed in corruption allegations on an almost weekly basis. The perennial conflicts between his vast private interests and public role have sharpened, and these have brought new divisions with close allies, the Catholic church and even inside his own family. Moreover, the revelations about his private life continue to tumble out, as in a graphic and disturbing report in La Repubblica (28 October 2010).
True, Berlusconi has been through much of this before and is also skilled at using adversity to his own advantage. This time, however, things do seem to have reached a new stage. This is a regime in crisis.
Since 1994, Berlusconi - driven by a personal as well as political mission to change Italy - has dominated Italian politics. Berlusconismo, always less a distinct ideology than a way of governing and a mode of power, has at least partially succeeded in reinventing Italy in his own image. In a classic fusion of wealth, charisma and populism, he has convinced sufficient numbers of Italians often enough that his route to riches and power - standing up to the Italian political class and defeating the “system” - can work for them too.
Berlusconi intuitively understands the virtual, media-driven world he both inhabits and dominates, and this has given his brand of postmodern populism a huge political advantage over consistently lacklustre opponents. Even as he operates on the margins of legality and depends on the support of a large team of lawyers to keep the show on the road, he has always kept a pace ahead of his adversaries.
Now, as the cracks in Berlusconismo are increasingly visible, its intolerant streak is ever more apparent and the margins of permissible dissent are narrowing considerably. Berlusconi’s own media have turned viciously on former allies, while the public-broadcasting system - still indirectly under his control - has removed his critics (most notably the TV presenter Michele Santoro). The bullying which once intimidated now seems to reveal weakness; the fractures this time look irreparable.
The end of the affair
The most serious conflict has been with Gianfranco Fini. What makes it especially sharp is that Fini, the speaker of the chamber of deputies, is Berlusconi’s longstanding political and governmental colleague.
Fini is an ex-fascist who attempted to remodel his Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance / AN) into a mainstream conservative party before it merged with Forza Italia to become the Il Popolo della Libertà (People of Liberty / PdL) in 2008, Fini has been increasingly irked by Berlusconi’s determination to protect his own power-base through legislation for parliamentary immunity, as well as his frequent attacks on the judiciary.
The simmering tension exploded in an extraordinary public shouting-match at a party congress in April 2010, when Fini - a centralist who has traditionally enjoyed strong support in southern Italy - criticised both the influence of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord (Northern League) in the government’s agenda and aspects of Berlusconi’s leadership style.
Fini’s criticisms of Berlusconi have put the future of the government in some peril. He has now left the PdL to set up his own grouping, and will be a significant player in any future centre-right alternative. More seriously as far as Berlusconi is concerned, Fini’s newly combative stance has put the future of the prime minister’s political career in doubt.
It may sound bizarre to refer in such terms to a 74-year-old premier, but in Italy politicians rarely retire - and in Berlusconi’s case, there are other serious issues at stake. Many commentators believe that his long-term ambition, after the completion of his current term as prime minister in 2013, is to become president of the Italian republic.
This extended period in senior office would both further feed his relentless political ambition and protect himself from the courts (especially if he can entrench his parliamentary immunity).
It is in this context that the challenge posed by Fini - both an emerging opponent and a plausible successor of Berlusconi - can be understood. The response of Berlusconi to the threat posed by Fini has been one of staggering intensity and vitriol which makes the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown rivalry appear as a lovers' tiff.
Il Giornale, a paper owned by the Berlusconi family, has launched persistent attacks on Fini, referring to him as “comrade”’ for his support of civil-rights issues. The most serious allegation in a wider smear campaign, and even that is both unsubstantiated and relatively minor, is that Fini purchased and subsequent let an apartment in Monte Carlo previously owned by the Alleanza Nazionale to the brother of his partner (see Paddy Agnew, "Criticise, even mildly, and Berlusconi's bloodhounds are after you", Irish Times, 13 October 2010).
Il Giornale has broadened its reach by attacking other prominent critics of Berlusconi, including Emma Marcegaglia, the head of the business federation Confindustria, who questioned the prime minister’s optimistic reading of the current state of the Italian economy. The release of information suggesting that the paper was preparing a lengthy, personalised campaign against her has led to a police investigation against the newspaper.
The exit strategy
These are all the signs of the end of a regime. The economy is stagnating and the government is losing direction and purpose. Berlusconi continues to project an image of political toughness, from his appearance alongside long-term ally Vladimir Putin to his endorsement of Sarah Palin’s Tea Party movement (on account of its low-tax policy, hard line on immigration, and appeal to women voters).
There is more than a hint of strain in the effort, suggesting that any genuine recovery of his former strength will be very difficult. But anyone expecting Berlusconi to go quietly - let alone at last to be called to account in a process of constitutional reform and widening institutional transparency - is likely to be profoundly disappointed.
For its part, the official opposition remains timid in its arguments, toothless in its ability to address the core of Italy’s problems, and continually incapable of articulating any persuasive post-Berlusconi vision (see "Beyond Berlusconi: ten questions to Italy's opposition", 15 February 2010). There are, it is true, growing demonstrations in defence of workers’ rights and for defence of democracy. But the left’s miserable recent record of wasted potential suggests that its one current bright hope - Nichi Vendola - is likely to be thwarted by the Partito Democratico's apparatchiks.
In the absence of a strong reform movement, the probability is that Silvio Berlusconi, in setting out his own exit strategy, will continue to be a decisive force in shaping Italian politics for a while to come. He is increasingly dependent on the Lega Nord, whose intolerance of immigration is beginning to win substantial support amongst traditional working-class voters in the north as well as its consolidating its core support amongst small family businesses. The Lega’s agenda is likely to become even more authoritarian in the months before the next elections (likely to be held in spring 2011), and could still be a strong force in a future government.
Berlusconi has already demonstrated a willingness to use his vast media resources to defend his power-base - and history shows that he usually gets his way. At the same time, Italy’s deteriorating economy and deepening political crisis is shifting attention not only to who will succeed him but on how his own future will be resolved. Some deal will be agreed. But at what cost to Italy?