Silvio Berlusconi: the last battle

Geoff Andrews
16 October 2009


The latest legal verdict on Silvio Berlusconi is - it would seem - a cause for cheer among democrats in Europe, and indeed all those who believe in press freedom, the rule of law, transparency and accountability. For in its ruling of 7 October 2009, Italy's constitutional court decided that that the law passed in 2008 by a simple parliamentary majority granting parliamentary immunity to the Italian prime minister is at odds with the country's constitution.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Italy's politics:

Giovanni Bachelet et al, "A manifesto from Italy" (30 May 2002)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (22 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (24 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (24 August 2005)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush!"(27 February 2006)

Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?" (23 March 2006)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

Berlusconi's piece of legal-political chicanery had allowed him to avoid possible charges of bribery, corruption and tax-fraud (and of attempting to blackmail two centre-left senators during the previous, centre-left government of Romano Prodi). Now the prime minister - already under pressure from a mortifying scandal involving his relationships with young women, and over his harassment of media critical of him - is again in the frame. The political consequences of this legal decision could be significant; for the prospect of Berlusconi soon facing three court cases might lead to the break-up of his governing coalition, and thus elections.  

But it is also too early to celebrate. For the "heroes" of the moment, those who have sought to uphold Italy's constitution and the rule of law, are Italy's judges rather than its decayed political class. The political reverberations of the court's ruling are likely to involve not an open, healthy clash between Berlusconi's regime and forces of democratic renewal but secretive and tactical manoeuvring by seasoned members of Italy's political class in search of advantage from the premier's predicament. It is far from clear that the struggle for a dopo-Silvio form of governance among those who have been in Berlusconi's shadow since the mid-1990s (with only brief intermissions) can produce a regenerated Italian democracy.

A populist moment

Another way to make the same point is that whatever Silvio Berlusconi's legal and political fate, it will be very hard for Italy to work through the legacy of his long period of hegemony. For Berlusconi has combined the roles of politician, corporate tycoon and media showman to create a powerful vehicle - a postmodern form of populism - which has allowed him to dominate Italian public life and set the political agenda even during the years he has been out of office.

Berlusconi's control of much of the media is central to his achievement, allowing him a means to employ to the full a command of patronage, an ability to impose his values, and an instrument to shape political discourse. This establishment of new sources of power has also enabled him to sidestep many aspects of the constitutional structures and legal norms hitherto regarded as crucial foundations of a modern liberal democracy, but which Berlusconi appears to hold in contempt.  

It is typical of Berlusconi that his immediate response to the constitutional-court's verdict was to denounce Italy's judges as leftwing; to complain about the leftwing bias of the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano; and to insult a centre-left MP, Rosy Bindi. But such tactics can work to the extent they do only because they play well among significant numbers of Italians. The prime minister's view that judges, intellectuals and other professional experts are working to prevent him from getting the job done - even that he is a victim, the target of unfair plots and campaigns by a tyrannical leftist establishment - speaks to the fears and prejudices of many Italian citizens.

In these circumstances, it would be very surprising if Berlusconi "left the pitch" (to use his own terminology) at this particular moment. He routinely claims that his election by the people gives him a legitimacy denied to unelected judges. Indeed, the fact that in liberal democracies political leaders have to abide by the same rules as others irrespective of their popularity with the electorate seems to have passed the prime minister by, as it has many of his supporters.

In short, the immediate impact of the constitutional-court verdict - and another reason to withhold cheers - has been to fuel a dangerous populism. Umberto Bossi, a crucial ally of Berlusconi and a populist of a more traditionalist genre, has already threatened to bring people on to the streets in opposition to the judges' verdict. The coming weeks will resemble a strategy of conflict, whereby the Italian premier uses all his available power and influence with the electorate to try to force a schism with the head of state, the judges and political opponents.  

A political vacuum

There is indeed no shortage of targets. Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, has been waging a strong counterattack on Silvio's critics. A vicious campaign used revelations of private behaviour to force the resignation of Dino Boffo, the editor of the Catholic newspaper Avvenire. A follow-up assailed Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi's closest ally for insufficient loyalty. The tight control of the news coverage of the public broadcaster RAI has included the postponement of Ballaro, a weekly current-affairs programme.

Berlusconi's most vigorous critics are undeterred. His decision to issue writs against selected media outlets provoked La Repubblica to initiate a petition in defence of press freedom, which now has nearly 500,000 signatures. La Repubblica has taken a brave stand against Berlusconi's excesses, marked by its publication of ten questions to Berlusconi over his relationship with the 18-year-old Noemi Letizia. (As I write, the clock on the paper's website confirms that 150 days have passed without any response). Its campaign has been widely reported abroad, including in openDemocracy, reflecting the way that Italy's troubles have acquired an international dimension. The day after the constitutional court made its judgment, the European parliament debated press freedom in Italy; and there is now a European Campaign for Press Freedom in Italy.  

However, La Repubblica (which Berlusconi on 12 October called on industrialists to boycott because of its criticism of his government) and the foreign press cannot bring change to Italy. Only politicians and civic leaders, together with Italian citizens, can accomplish this. As yet, there is no sign of a new reform agenda emerging. There was a well-attended demonstration in support of media freedom in Rome on 3 October; but with the exception of Antonio Di Pietro's small Italia dei Valori party and a group of critics and comedians, there is little foundation for a movement of genuine renovation.  

A suspended future

The crucial factor in deciding Silvio Berlusconi's fate may well be the stance of his leading political friends. Gianfranco Fini, his most senior ally and president of the chamber of deputies, has called on the premier to respect the constitution (and defended the state president from Berlusconi's attack). This may become a decisive split. Fini has tried to position himself as a statesman, ready to take the responsibility of the nation on his shoulders; though he has also made enemies among the party faithful and may choose to wait for a later opportunity (perhaps even the presidency).

The influential chairman of Fiat, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, is another candidate to succeed Berlusconi were the prime minister forced to resign. Di Montezemolo launched the Italia Futura think-tank on 7 October 2009, and clearly intends to remain at the centre of events.

Any such option - and some think that Berlusconi's closest allies will not risk breaking ranks in this populist moment - will fail to provide a quick or easy solution. There is no great demand for a government of technocrats; such a project was attempted with little success following the fall of Berlusconi's first government in 1994, and would again require barely democratic machinations and manoeuvres behind the scenes.

Moreover, the figures most likely to assume important roles in any such outcome would be experienced apparatchiks such as Massimo D'Alema from the centre-left, and Giulio Tremonti (the treasury minister) and Pierferdinando Casini from the Catholic centre - as well as Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. True, this would be one Italian solution to the crisis, but only a shift from an Orwellian leadership to a Machiavellian scenario.

Silvio Berlusconi still has cards to play. He has the option of calling a snap election (which on current polling evidence he would certainly win). He has already spent millions on lawyers to keep him from prosecution, and it will not be easy to bring him to court. Yet after many crises and scandals - and it is certain that Berlusconi will not go quietly - this does now look like his last battle.

The real debate on Italy's future has yet to start. But even at this stage, two things are clear. First, the last thing Italy needs now is more populism. Second, the next generation of leaders will have to push towards a new model of Italian governance: neither Orwellian nor Machiavellian, but democratic.


Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press / McGill-Queen's, 2008). Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (1 November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Italy's hour of darkness" (17 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

"Italy's creeping fascism" (19 February 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" (5 June 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please" (9 June 2009)

"Berlusconi's scandal, Italy's tragedy" (29 June 2009)

"Italy and the G8: voices from L'Aquila" (10 July 2009)

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