Silvio Berlusconi's legacy

It is a month since Italy's long-term prime minister resigned. But his pervasive influence on Italy's public life and the infirmity of the country's political class mean that it is too early to call this the post-Berlusconi era, says Geoff Andrews.
Geoff Andrews
14 December 2011

He has gone, but he’s not out. The atmosphere of Silvio Berlusconi's departure from the post of prime minister on 12 November 2011 may have been characteristically undignified, as his route from his Palazzo Grazioli residence in Rome to the presidential palace echoed to onlookers' jeers of "buffoon" and "shame". Yet if something of a "circus" continued to surround Berlusconi even in the last moments of his office, it is important to note that his exit was not the result of an actual political defeat.

The key factors in Berlusconi's departure were his failure to get sufficient parliamentary support for his handling of Italy's escalating debt crisis, growing discontent among his coalition partners, and external pressure from European Union leaders reinforced by intelligent statesmanship from Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano. The official opposition had nothing to do with his exit, and it is notable that the "celebrations" were muted by Italian standards - even though millions of Italians had long awaited the moment.

The ambiguity extends to the unelected technocratic government of Mario Monti that has replaced Berlusconi's cabinet. Italians have broadly welcomed a new government of (largely) 60-something non-politicians; it includes a diplomat in charge of foreign affairs, a lawyer running the interior ministry, and an army general running defence (Monti himself is finance minister as well as prime minister). So far, however, there is little indication of what political settlement may follow when the the government ends its term of office in 2013.

The discredited old

The shadow over it is, above all, the profound effect of Berlusconismo on Italian society, politics and culture. Berlusconi himself remains a strong figure, who may yet decide that the best way of avoiding prosecution in the several legal cases he is involved in is to kick-start another phase of his political career. After all, he has dominated Italian politics for nearly twenty years; even when not in office, he has seemed to be in power; he has seen off all his centre-left opponents in this period (with the exception of Romano Prodi); and he continues to wield immense media power.

Moreover, Berlusconi chose well the timing of his resignation - in that he has managed to absolve himself of responsibility for imminent and inevitably unpopular pension cuts, public-service restraints and (above all) tax rises. Indeed, even in office he was able to remove himself from the normal constraints of accountability demanded by public office - a faculty that the journalist Beppe Severgnini (speaking to an audience of Italianists and media specialists at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford on 29 November) relates to Berlusconi's "pathological desire to be loved". This helps explain both why he rarely gave interviews to journalists, who might ask awkward and controversial questions, and his overwhelming sense of bitterness at the crowds outside the Palazzo Grazioli.

A defining feature of Berlusconismo, Severgnini argues (echoing here something Umberto Eco identified many years ago) is the leader's embrace of "neo-journalism" and "neo-TV" - so-called "infotainment". This is the world of reality TV and gameshows which both pushed serious journalism to the margin of the schedules (if it was lucky) and, more sinisterly, identified it as being "for the elites". Berlusconi built his success on an ability to conceive the ("true") electorate as an audience which disregarded or had contempt for the "other" 5 million or so Italians - those who read newspapers, read more than three books a year, and watch late-night politics programmes.

"Without understanding Berlusconi you won’t understand Italians", claims Severgnini. Some argue that this harsh assessment overestimates the extent to which Berlusconi won over the bulk of Italians and underestimates his dark manipulation of Italy’s enduring political crisis; others, such as Paolo Mancini, extend it by asking whether he offers a new model of "lifestyle politics" for the 21st century, involving a new relationship between leaders and led.

Maurizio Viroli's prescient analysis, The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi's Italy, suggests that the relationship between Berlusconi and his close allies (or "courtiers") is a servile one, dependent upon patronage and favours. This was starkly apparent in the no-confidence vote of mid-October 2011 which precipitated the final outcome. "Without me, none of you have a future", Berlusconi is reported to have told those preparing to desert him. His ability to buy their support had been crucial to his survival, and until his final day he was sending out warnings to potential "traitors".

Maurizio Viroli contends that Berlusconi’s main legacy is to have moved Italy away from some of the conventions of constitutional representative democracy, substituting a "corrupted liberalism" that is openly contemptuous of freedom through the law and equality before the law.

In this perspective, Berlusconismo turns the authority of the people granted to him at election time into a weapon against the "interference" of judges and the attentions of a critical media; it is also a mechanism for the leader to put himself above the law through legislation on parliamentary privilege and a deferral of serious corruption charges as long as he could stay in office. But against this "corrupted liberalism", Viroli argues that Italy’s political class has failed to uphold the Italian constitution, embedded as it is in the principles of civic republicanism, and to hold Berlusconi to account over the conflict of interests between his massive media ownership and political office.

Italy's political opposition too, throughout Berlusconi's time as prime minister, has attempted to do deals with him on his own terms. These include Massimo D’Alema’s ill-fated compromise over bicameral reform in 1998, which ended as soon as the issue of conflict of interests was mentioned. This "appeasement" (as Viroli rightly calls it) represents a lack of moral courage that Berlusconi continually exploited.

The fragile new

The moral weakness of the political class and the opposition is key to the explanation of why Italy is now run by technocrats. In the circumstances the assumption of responsibility by an unelected government backed by the European Union and the IMF may have been the only way of defeating Berlusconi. But it leaves an unresolved political crisis in which Berlusconi's removal exposes Italy's extraordinarily overpaid clique - untouchable in their blue cars, effectively appointed by apparatchiks through an absurd party-list system in which all political parties collude - to new scrutiny.

After Berlusconi, there are still too few few reasons to be optimistic. It may not be long before Berlusconi, aided by his anointed successor Angelino Alfano, weighs in to attack the authority of Italy’s technocrats. Some political realignment is certain, but the infirmity of Italy’s centre-left - with the relatively new Democratic Party already looking tired and defeated - means the form it is more likely to take is either a populist, anti-immigrant, anti-euro rightwing government or an ungainly Vatican-supported centrist alliance.

In "super Mario" Monti, Italy now has a leader very different in style to the one who has dominated the last two decades. The contrast between the technocrat and the postmodern populist is vast in principle, but a situation of serious economic crisis and democratic deficit narrows the former's opportunity to make it clear in practice.

Beyond both, there is another Italy - an Italy that is "not Berlusconi", but is also very critical of the political class as a whole and is foremost in many civil-society movements. It includes many everyday Italians and members of the lost generation that has been leaving Italy in large numbers. This "other" Italy has many voices. But they are still struggling to be heard.

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