After Berlusconi - Italy Faces its Biggest Challenge

posted by Geoff Andrews at Wednesday, November 27, 2013

If, as expected, Senators vote to expel Silvio Berlusconi from the Italian parliament later today it will mark a decisive moment for the country. For the last two decades Silvio Berlusconi has dominated not only Italian politics but Italian society, propelling it on a disastrous course. More than anyone he has been responsible for turning it into the most degenerate body politic in Western Europe. Italy has lived under his shadow and its futures, hopes and aspirations of its young people have been jeopardised for too long.

However, if the vote is carried – and even at this late stage there is no guarantee – then big questions and Italy’s most challenging tasks remain. Firstly, the vote to remove him from parliament is unlikely to end his political career or his aspirations for power. After all that has happened - fraud trials, Bunga Bunga parties, and mounting economic crisis - the centre-right still leads in the polls and as yet it has no capable alternative leader. As we know from the past, Berlusconi can be a tough opponent, and as a wounded jackal can be at his most dangerous. He has now re-formed Forza Italia!, his own campaigning personal fan base which first brought him to power nearly twenty years ago.

Secondly, despite much rhetoric from the centre- left, Berlusconi has never been politically defeated in any decisive way. The shambolic circumstances in which Enrico Letta’s government came to office after an inconclusive February General Election and the subsequent posturing and bloodletting within the Democratic Party only played into Berlusconi’s hands; and that despite the personal crisis which had engulfed him intensifying as his conviction for fraud was upheld in August. On the contrary, the left’s timidity and failure to provide an alternative vision has always been a key element in his success, coupled with the inability of Italy’s political class to reform its political institutions and offer a path to reform. Those two factors explain why Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement continues to prosper at the polls, even if they do not have a coherent political alternative.

Therefore, the key question is this: once Berlusconi is removed from office, can Italy also free itself from the most serious and debilitating aspects of his legacy, namely the culture of illegality, an economy that stopped working a long time ago and a political system that habitually looks after its own interests? Since being in office Enrico Letta has at least managed to avoid being overly drawn in to Berlusconi’s predicaments, concentrating instead on holding together a fragile coalition which includes the centre right, though not any longer Berlusconi’s part of it. He will be helped in the short term by Angelino Alfano’s newly formed group of ‘moderates’ which have broken from Berlusconi. However, Italy needs more than short-term stability; it requires a clear signal of political and economic reform, an opening up of society and economy to allow a generational shift in the balance of power.

That is why the government should not any longer be constrained by Berlusconi’s agenda, despite the interest and speculation that will be fuelled by the departure from the pitch of the ‘great survivor’. In typically robust manner Berlusconi has timed a TV appearance to coincide with this evening’s Senate vote, a reminder too of the extent of the power he can still draw on outside parliament. He won’t go easily and will campaign furiously if the vote goes against him. There is some optimism that this time Italy’s politicians have learned. The signs are not go

History From Below - Response to Gove

posted by Geoff Andrews at Friday, June 21, 2013

History has never been more popular. There is more of it on TV than ever before, with both professional historians and popular commentators delivering masses of images, facts and anecdotes into our living rooms on a daily basis. Only food and soaps seem to be given more airtime. Family history, heritage studies, and the internet, with its sheer capacity for exchanging historical knowledge, have pushed out the boundaries still further. The potential to reach new audiences and offer space to forgotten voices appears unlimited.

Yet, how we view the past, the methods we adopt in investigating it, and the priorities we give for teaching it, are, once again, all under scrutiny. Michael Gove, the Education Minister, has drafted a revamped history curriculum, heavy on data and key dates which will offer, in a strict chronology, the ‘story of Britain’. Along the way he has upset leading historians, attracted much criticism from history teachers and raised the prospect of returning to a top-down and selective view of the past.

This conventional way of teaching history, grounded in battles and lists, has been the subject of past critique because of its focus on elites and confining historical knowledge and investigation to professional historians; excluding, therefore, the many fragmented, local and dissident voices. We can add to that the hegemony of neo-liberalism over recent decades, which has provided very particular understandings of the 1970s and 1980s that were evident in the wake of Mrs Thatcher’s death. In that selective look at the past, in a narrative largely shared by New Labour and the Conservatives, ‘class’, in its sense of collective, shared experience, was the main historical casualty.

In all the accounts of the ideas which underpinned her philosophy in government, probably the most illuminating was written shortly after she left office over twenty years ago. In his essay ‘Mrs Thatcher and Victorian Values’, Raphael Samuel used the opportunity to revisit Victorian attitudes to poverty, welfare, church and chapel, modernisation and tradition as well as interrogating her own claims to Victorian sensibilities.

‘Mrs Thatcher used ‘Victorian Values’ as a way of conjuring up lost innocence. Against a background of inner-city disturbances, such as those which swept the streets of Toxteth and Brixton in 1981, she pictured an older Britain where parents were strict, children good-mannered, hooliganism (she erroneously believed) unknown. At a time when both the struggling and the prosperous were mortgaged up to the hilt, she recalled the virtues of penny saving. In a contracting economy where, under the shadow of microchip technology, every occupation was under actual or potential threat, she looked back to a time when labour was a means of self-fulfilment, when occupations were regarded as callings, and when jobs – or businesses – were for life. In the face of multi-culturalism, she resurrected the mythology of a unified national self’. *

A similar critical engagement with the Edwardian period is also under way, with the assumptions of the popular inter-war soap opera Downton Abbey challenged by the work of Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants; A Downstairs View, or Alison Light’s earlier Mrs Woolf and the Servants; both based on oral testimonies and diaries. History, therefore, becomes a contested battle-ground, and how we remember the past is so often constrained by present political or cultural assumptions.

Samuel had earlier been the main instigator of the History Workshop, a movement set up at Ruskin College in the late 1960s to (in his words) ‘encourage working men and women to write their own history instead of allowing it to be lost, or learning it at second and third hand; to become producers rather than consumers; and to bring their own experience and understanding to bear upon the record of the past’. It was extraordinarily fruitful and transformative, opening up new areas of historical inquiry, facilitating the development of worker-historians, and feminist historians and challenging orthodox methods of investigating the past. It sustained a journal and numerous conferences and its workshops contributed directly to wider political movements, such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, whose first conference was held at Ruskin in 1970.

There now seems to be a revival of the ‘history from below’ tradition driven by a new generation of radical historians. No less than four major conferences are being held on the fiftieth anniversary years after the publication of E.P.Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, the seminal text which really pioneered a new way of writing history from below. Recent initiatives include the ‘Unofficial Histories’ conference, founded ‘to discuss how society produces, presents and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past’, while at Ruskin, History Matters, inspired by the History Workshop, is launched this week. The OU-BBC’s Secret History of our Streets, which told the story of six London streets from a combination of documents and oral testimonies of past and present residents, also found an untapped interest in local community history. The thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike next year as well as the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, are both likely to provoke more interest and critical debate over their meanings. And, hopefully, more for Mr Gove to think about.

Past: Imperfect. Future:Tense.

posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, April 27, 2013

After more than two months of political stalemate arising from the inconclusive elections of 24-25 February, a new Italian government has been formed under the leadership of Enrico Letta, currently the Democratic Party’s (PD) Deputy Leader. There will be relief not only in Italy, but among its European partners and some optimism emanating from the composition of the new ministers. This includes a record number of women and the first black government minister, Cecile Kyenge, a doctor of Congolese descent, who becomes Minister of Integration. Notable appointments include Emma Bonino, long-standing member of the Radical Party to foreign affairs, and Anna Maria Cancellieri, as Justice Minister, whose reappointment will please Roberto Saviano, who has recognised some progress on anti-mafia reform. The appointment of Fabrizio Saccomanni, a close ally of Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, will do much to calm the markets. Italy’s allies will surely give strong endorsement to the new government, but much uncertainty remains.

President Giorgio Napolitano has been quick to point out that this is Letta’s government, formed through negotiation with other political parties, notably Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) and Mario Monti’s centrist Civic Choice. However the imprint of Napolitano, appointed for an unprecedented second term as President at the age of 87, and who was impatient for the government to be formed and for it to get on with its business, is not difficult to see. ‘Our country and Europe could not wait any longer’ he said at the press conference to launch the new government. Several members of Mario Monti’s ‘technocratic’ government have survived, despite his alliance’s poor showing at the election and leading figures from the two main parties have not been included, with the exception of Angelino Alfano, Berlusconi’s protégé who becomes Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The average age of the ministers has been reduced to 53 and Letta himself at 46 is comparatively young in Italian terms, though well-grounded in the political establishment as a former minister and nephew of one of Silvio Berlusconi’s closest allies.

It is important to remember that for the time being the real victors of the election remain Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo. The left-right coalition government was Berlusconi’s original preference, with the prospect of early elections, while Grillo has been quick to see the convergence of the two main parties in office as confirmation of his view that the same discredited political class remains entrenched in power. The cost of this new right-left government was the implosion of the PD over the shambolic and protracted process of electing the ‘new’ President. This is a defeat which follows a long history of failure of the Italian left, from the transition from a mass Communist Party, through a ‘third way’ social democratic venture, to a party formed between conflicting ex-communist and ex-Christian Democrat interests. The rifts over the President’s election will not heal easily and the prospect of a realignment of the left, with part of the PD joining Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Party, remains on the cards. Matteo Renzi, the ‘Blairite’ Mayor of Florence, who was a pivotal and controversial figure in the election for President and the likely future leader of the PD, will also be assessing his next moves which could further increase the schism.

The composition of the new government has come as a welcome surprise to many commentators, some of whom have modified their predictions for early elections to a more optimistic prognosis that the government could last as long as two years. Much uncertainty and risk remains however. The policy priorities have yet to be revealed and Berlusconi’s ‘price’ for his support could, as in the past, prove fatal for Italy. He currently faces several trials and for many the prospect of long-term reform of public institutions, including the media and justice system, demand that Berlusconi’s conflict of interests are addressed. It seems that he remains in power if not in office. History has shown that he extracts a tough concession for his cooperation.

There is also the question of the economic strategy. Although widely welcomed in Europe, Mario Monti’s technocratic government achieved few real gains and became deeply unpopular at home which was confirmed by a disastrous performance in the election. It is not enough to appease bureaucrats and leaders in Europe. The government has to deal with an enormous problem of insecure work, lack of prospects and rapidly widening generational division. If the government fails to move beyond austerity to deliver growth, then it faces the prospect of a hot late summer and autumn and the rising anger of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and a militant union opposition.

History Battles: Paolo Di Canio and 'Good Fascism'.

posted by Geoff Andrews at Thursday, April 04, 2013

The controversy which has engulfed Paolo Di Canio, the new Sunderland manager, has taken many Italians by surprise. In extreme cases, some have even attempted to turn the accusation of ‘intolerance’ on to his critics. His views are his private concern, they argue. Others wonder why it has taken the British so long to work him out. After all, his views on Fascism have been clear for a while, he wears a Mussolini tattoo and has given the Roman salute at games: why all the fuss now? In reality, the Di Canio episode is part of a wider history battle central to the Berlusconi era, in which the notion of a ‘good’, as well as ‘bad’, fascism has been allowed to regain credibility.

Silvio Berlusconi has dominated Italian politics for the last 20 years. Even when he was not in ‘office’, many accepted that he was still in ‘power’. We know much about his wealth, his TV ownership, alleged Mafia connections and uncanny longevity which extends to the current political impasse. However, a crucial factor in his rise was his ability to construct unusual alliances. It was his agreement with the initially ‘neo-fascist’ National Alliance, effectively the inheritor of Mussolini’s blackshirts, which helped get him elected in the first place. This party, led by Gianfranco Fini, his long-time political ally, subsequently evolved into a ‘post-fascist’ organisation which sought – though never ultimately realised – acceptance by the European conservative mainstream.

This was not merely about one political party moving from the margins to the mainstream however. Indeed Fini himself eventually split and ended up in the small Monti coalition which failed so spectacularly in the recent election, while the bulk of his former post-fascist allies have been absorbed into Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. Rather, the Berlusconi era represented a significant shift away from the anti-fascist consensus of post-war Italy, in a political culture that had long been dominated by Christian Democrats (DC) and Communists (PCI); namely the parties which owed much of their mass support to anti-fascism. They were, after all, co-authors of the post-war democratic constitution, even if the DC became entrenched as the party of power. The Tangentopoli ‘Bribesville’ corruption scandal and the fall of the Berlin Wall in their different ways effectively created a vacuum which, as we know, was filled by Berlusconi. De-legitimising the anti-fascist consensus was always a core part of the Berlusconi agenda.

Though the PCI has now metamorphosed into the ideologically ambiguous Democratic Party, the Italian Left still draws on its proud role in the resistance movement. This is evident in the annual Liberation Day celebrations on 25 April, and on visiting many Italian cities, notably in the traditionally ‘red’ regions of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria. Little surprise, then, that 25 April has moved from being a day of national celebration to a politically contested event where Berlusconi and his supporters have frequently sought to challenge the tenets of the post-war Italian constitution.

Even Bologna, the stronghold of the PCI and its successors, was not immune to this revisionism, as I found when writing about nearby Monte Sole, a former mountain community in the district of Marzabotto, and the scene of the worst Nazi atrocity in Italy during the Second World War, when 955 Italians (including women and children) were killed by the SS, with the cooperation of Italian fascists. In order to preserve the memory of what took place there between 29 September and 1 October 1944, it was decided to set up a ‘Foundation School for Peace’. In 2003, during the first and only non-left administration elected in Bologna since the war, and to the consternations of victims’ families and ordinary citizens, the City Council delegated as its representative on the school body, Enzo Raisi, a member of the National Alliance. Raisi told me in an interview that there was no evidence to show that Italian fascists were involved in the atrocity, that the victims’ families had been manipulated by the left and that ‘anti-fascism was in the business for votes’. There are many other examples in Italy where the history of fascism has been rewritten, normally by a populist and authoritarian movement that is habitually xenophobic on immigration and that bizarrely still attracts the label of ‘centre-right’.

Their arguments are often not explicitly pro Mussolini, or normally as nostalgic, for example, as the the arch-revisionist British historian Nicholas Farrell, resident of Mussolini’s former hometown of Predappio. (It was Farrell, along with The Spectator’s then editor, Boris Johnson, who in 2003 extracted from Berlusconi the claim that ‘Mussolini didn’t kill anyone’). Normally, they either suggest that fascists and communists were as bad as each other – thereby conveniently removing the role of the Communist Party in the reconstruction of post-war Italy - or that Mussolini, that ‘complex figure’, was led astray by Hitler. Fascism until 1935, or 1938, or some other date, was fairly benign, it is argued, and certainly ‘not racist’. He was much ‘misunderstood’ as Di Canio and others reiterate. Even Roberta Lombardi, one of the leaders of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, has praised Italian Fascism’s ‘sense of community’, respect for family and the state. The criticism of her comments came as much of a surprise to her as Di Canio’s critics did to him.

Anti-fascism in Italy, as elsewhere, did not end with the Cold War. There are thousands of Italians in rallies, conversations and personal memories who remind us that Italian fascism was a brutal regime, responsible for the murder and suppression of many political opponents, together with the transportation of Jewish people to concentration camps. Moreover, as we see on the streets of Greece and elsewhere, fascist organisations are exploiting the current economic and social crisis. For these reasons we need to learn from the history of fascism and, until we get a satisfactory answer, to keep asking Paolo Di Canio to clarify his political allegiances.

The Rise of Beppe Grillo is a Symptom of Italy's Crisis

posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, February 23, 2013

In September 2002 I was in Piazza San Giovanni in Rome to hear the film director Nanni Moretti address up to a million – estimates of these events always vary wildly – of his ‘girotondini’; literally ‘ring a ring a roses’ participants. This was a very civilised but indignant demonstration attended by a broad range of mainly centre-left groups opposed to what they saw as Silvio Berlusconi’s abuse of power and defence of his private interests. At the time Berlusconi was just over a year in to his second spell as Prime Minister, and momentum within the opposition had been growing among large union and anti-global movements.

A few months earlier, Moretti had walked out of another Rome square, Piazza Navona, after telling centre-left leaders they would ‘never win’. He blamed them – rightly as it happens – for failing to deal with Berlusconi ; notably for not passing conflicts of interest legislation and for lack of unity and effective leadership. Those leaders, which included Massimo D’Alema, Francesco Rutelli and others, were offended by Moretti’s action. However, history has shown him to be accurate, as Berlusconi went on to dominate Italian politics even as the worst aspects of his regime became public knowledge and the economic crisis intensified.

At the culmination of this 2013 election campaign, Piazza San Giovanni was packed once more. Again estimates of numbers varied wildly, but the tones were angrier and the rhetoric heavier. Members of the press were not welcomed by the assembly. Beppe Grillo, the comedian, blogger, and now candidate for Italy’s highest office, was making a last appeal to his supporters. Many of these were in their twenties and thirties, part of that lost generation which Italy desperately needs to bring growth, creativity and above all hope. Grillo’s support seemed to be rising fast - opinion polls stop 15 days before election day – and he was looking to end his campaign on a high.

Much of what he said, in what came over as a prolonged rant at Italy’s political class, made sense. After all, Italy’s leaders are a sorry bunch. Not only have they failed to offer a way out of the economic mess, but they have been incapable of providing wider reform of the political system or of opening up its institutions to anything remotely resembling a meritocracy. Don’t even mention the word ‘transparency’ in a society still dominated by protected interests and organised corruption. Grillo’s long-standing pledge is to tackle the criminality of Italy’s politicians and his call to ‘send them home’ got the biggest cheer of the night.

His appeal is particularly popular among younger Italians - at least those who have yet to join Italy’s growing exiled diaspora in Europe. This generation of Italians have most to fear. Unemployment, the difficulty of getting the chance to start a business or independence from their family, low wages and insecure work are common. Italy needs to find a solution for its young people.

However, Grillo is not the solution. It is true that he has been ignored by Italy’s press a lot of the time and, despite their contempt, increasingly feared by the mainstream politicians. But he has also exhausted his mission; he has become a symbol of discontent, but the need now is to get on with the alternative. His protest could yet extend to holding some balance of political power in the new government and, if so, his terms of negotiation will not be easy. But his rhetoric of all or nothing, a referendum on the euro and tarnishing all his opponents with the same brush is not, in the end, a solution. The same evening that Grillo was ranting in the piazza, Nanni Moretti was in a Rome theatre repeating his warning of 2002 and the urgent need for ‘conflicts of interest’ legislation to today’s leader centre-left Pierluigi Bersani, who now seems close to victory. The road to reform in Italy may turn out to be a quieter affair than Grillo would like.

The Italian Election: in Berlusconi's Shadow

posted by Geoff Andrews at Tuesday, February 12, 2013

This was supposed to be Italy’s new beginning. Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation from the post of prime minister in November 2011 - the fourth such departure of his dizzying career - was the definitive sign that the country was about to take a different path. The scenes of jubilation outside the Quirinale Palace as the beleaguered premier notified President Napolitano - where some of Berlusconi's opponents even sang the hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah - seemed to confirm the sense of an historic shift.

The appointment of the reform-minded technocrat Mario Monti as his successor, talk among Italy’s scattered generation of trentenni (thirty-somethings) of a return home to help renew the country, and then Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud and banning from public office in October 2012 - all contributed to the narrative of an Italy that was at last forging ahead and leaving behind the figure who had dominated its public life for the last two decades.

As the general election of 24-25 February 2013 approaches, however, the question of what has really changed in Italy is inescapable. True, some things are different. The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has a new leader, the amiable (if "old school") Pierluigi Bersani, who trounced his younger ("Blairite") opponent Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, in primary elections praised for involving the wider participation of the electorate. There is a new influx of PD women candidates, in a political system renowned for its low percentage of female MPs. And Monti himself has entered the political arena, attempting to build a centrist coalition for change under the banner "With Monti For Italy".

But other elements suggest less of a fresh start. Monti's main partners - Future and Freedom, led by post-Fascist Gianfranco Fini, and Pierferdinando Casini’s Union of Christian Democrats - are former coalition allies of Berlusconi. Monti's year in office, which officially ended after parliament approved Italy's 2013 budget on 21 December (and Berlusconi’s party withdrew support for his government), may have been popular amongst Italy’s European partners, but its limited reforms of pensions, taxes and public services failed to win a strong domestic consensus. Most were seen as straightforward austerity measures, and many Italians regarded him as overly cautious and afraid of upsetting party interests. On the wider issues of generating growth and stimulating competition, the main long-term weakness of Italy’s economy, Monti failed.

So if Monti's reputation among the European allies (and senior figures in Italy) is high, the harsh effects of his policies meant he couldn't win over Italy's new generation. This left him vulnerable to populism of both left and right. Beppe Grillo’s "Five Star Movement" has continued to grow - much to the disquiet of the political class - and could yet have an impact on the election result. Monti’s own support lags behind Grillo’s, and any hope of cementing a progressive centre-left alternative with Bersani has been eclipsed by wrangling and counter accusation. Monti’s likely condition for a post-election agreement seems to rest on Bersani breaking with Nichi Vendola’s Left & Ecology movement; an unlikely scenario given any possible electoral majority needs the latter's support.

But it is the shadow of Silvio Berlusconi, and the centre-left’s fear and timidity in addressing his electoral threat, that are beginning to define this campaign. Berlusconi had announced the end of his political career, and his ability once more to challenge for power is partly owed to the vagaries of a justice system where the first conviction in a case is not definitive and subject to further processes and appeals. The very fact that he is in the race will astonish many observers elsewhere in western Europe, where similar legal findings would have had serious political consequences for someone in Berlusconi's position. But in two ways, the centre-left that must take a major share of the responsibility for Berlusconi's revival.

First, in a live television debate on the independent La 7 channel, Berlusconi got the better of the host Michele Santoro, a long-standing adversary (Santoro had worked for RAI, the state broadcaster, and the former prime minister was widely alleged to have forced his removal). In the broadcast, Santoro’s guest interviewers - including the leading Berlusconi critic Marco Travaglio - were allowed to air their own agendas rather than interrogating Berlusconi on his own legal troubles and poor economic record in office. In Travaglio’s case this meant an interminable monologue which presented no difficulty for Berlusconi (whose vintage performance included demonstratively wiping Travaglio’s seat). In a single programme on his favoured medium, he managed to revive his fortunes at the invitation of his lamentable opponents.

There are many excellent journalists in Italy, but the inability to employ rigorous interviewing that can hold those in power to account has often been apparent. This reflects a wider failure of the free media in Italy, namely to practise its wider constitutional role of facilitating information and transparency. In this particular case, Berlusconi had apparently been able to set down his own rules beforehand on what could or could not be covered in the "interview".

Second, the decision by the centre-left president of Rome's newest art museum, Giovanna Melandri, to suspend the screening of a documentary film in Rome until after the election - on the grounds that it was "over-political" - is another example of the mixture of extraordinary timidity and party-based machinations that operates in Italy's public life. The film - Girlfriend in a Coma, made by Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott (and based on the former Economist editor’s book Bill Emmott, Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer its Demons to Face the Future [Yale University Press, 2012]) - is intended to open up a debate about Italy, in particular the kind of economic and political reforms necessary for its revival. That it should be banned by opponents of Berlusconi, who in office owned or controlled up to 90% of Italian TV, is remarkable enough. Even more, because the film, which includes interviews with a range of critics, including Roberto Saviano, Nanni Moretti and leading industrialists, is a serious contribution to national debate and in no way party-political. In part it is a call to recognise that Italy’s hope rests increasingly on a growing diaspora, waiting for the chance to bring their talents and innovations home.

It is this hope that has been extinguished, seemingly with the active help of the centre-left, at least from Italy’s immediate future. Berlusconi may be unlikely to win an overall victory in the election, though he has closed the gap as the campaign has progressed and could still affect the outcome. Moreover, in the complex electoral system which he himself created, it is quite possible that the centre-left will fail to get a majority in the senate, the upper house. And then? The shadow of Berlusconi will ensure that Italy’s problems continue.

Berlusconi's Last Stand

posted by Geoff Andrews at Monday, December 10, 2012

So now it is official. After over a month of rumour and vitriol since his conviction for tax fraud , Silvio Berlusconi has announced that he will stand again for Prime Minister, seeking to take power for the fourth time. This has coincided with the resignation of Mario Monti , Italy’s technocrat leader, after a year in post, brought on by the withdrawal of support Berlusconi’s party’s in a clear statement of intent.

Two images immediately come to mind as the ‘great survivor’ once again seeks to confound his critics who believed his political career was over. First, is the moment in early 1994 when Berlusconi announced in a nine minute video sent to the media, including his own TV Channels, that he would ‘take the field’, promising Italians a ‘miracle’ to escape political inertia and the likely prospect of a left government. Then, in a period marked by deep political crisis in the aftermath of the Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’) and the ensuing mani pulite (‘clean hands’ investigations) led by Antonio Di Pietro and colleagues, Berlusconi was able to exploit populist opposition to Italy’s degenerate political class. The irony of course was that Berlusconi, himself implicated in Tangentopoli and someone who had benefited most from the patronage of disgraced Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, presented himself as the ‘outsider’ who can ‘save Italy’. He will undoubtedly seek to invoke the moment of 1994 in his latest election campaign, at a time when the left again has a clear lead in the polls.

The second image that comes to mind is the final scene in Nanni Moretti’s film Il Caimano (The Cayman), where Berlusconi (played by Moretti) turns on the judges after they have sentenced him to seven years for fraud band bribing judges. It is a sinister end to the film, made more dramatic by the stoning of the magistrates by Berlusconi’s supporters. Moretti’s film was released immediately prior to the 2006 election where the left squeezed a marginal victory out of Berlusconi’s own bizarre electoral laws. There were no victory celebrations that night in Rome however and the possibility of Berlusconi thwarting any chance of reform were realised with his return to power in 2008.

The reaction of Berlusconi to his conviction in October 2012 was eerily reminiscent of that moment in Il Caimano. After the conviction was announced, Berlusconi in a phone call to his own TV channel Italia 1, described it as a ‘political decision’ that was ‘intolerable’ and ‘incredible’. He attacked the magistrates and called for their reform. In previous cases he had called them ‘mentally unstable’. In the film, his conviction is followed by a political speech in the courtroom. ‘I wish to remind the court that I speak not only as Prime Minister but as a citizen to which the majority of Italians have entrusted the onus of responsibility to govern’. When the woman magistrate points out that Italians have the ‘right to know’ whether their Prime Minister is involved in corruption, Berlusconi/Moretti responds: ‘You are accusing me as Prime Minister and as a magistrate you cannot do that. If you wish to engage in politics resign and get elected’. With that and rejecting the view of the magistrate that ‘all are equal before the law’ he marches out of the courtroom, vowing he will not allow politically motivated judges to bring him down, after all he has done for Italy.

That, in a nutshell, is Berlusconi’s view in the current moment. It is an eerie reminder that the dividing lines between fact and fiction in contemporary Italy are thin indeed, and that the sinister scenario that is often raised by Berlusconi – but often ignored by political commentators – is now upon us. There are many who always believed that Silvio Berlusconi entered politics in order to avoid prosecution. During his time in office he passed parliamentary immunity legislation which enabled him to do that, furthering the belief that defence of his private interests was his primary aim in power. His recent decision to fight again will reinforce that belief and while nobody in Italy believes he will ever go to prison much is at stake and he has many powerful interests to protect.

However, things will be much more difficult for Berlusconi this time around. His Party of Freedom (Pdl) has very low poll ratings, is divided over strategy and has the recent experience of economic failure in government behind it. Far from delivering an economic miracle, Berlusconi presided over massive debt, low growth and lack of competitiveness. For once, the centre-left appears united under a new leader Pierluigi Bersani – albeit one who already has a long career behind him – and has had a consistent lead in the polls for the last few months. It seems a step too far for a leader, now 76, and apparently without the strong support he enjoyed from his allies that was necessary for his electoral victories in the past. The Northern League, crucial in his past election victories, has yet to come on board and will exact a high price for any coalition.

The situation could change quickly however. The failure of the Pdl to find another leader was a key factor in Berlusconi’s decision. The nature of his leadership and the relationship he enjoys with his political allies means that they are also lost without him. In his book The Liberty of Servants Maurizio Viroli argued that Berlusconi had re-established an ancient court system with a modern twist, in which his courtiers include not only political underlings, but TV presenters, lawyers and the many others who depend on him for favours and patronage, and as such have become deeply mired in corruption. The effect this had on Italy, according to Viroli, is to amplify a culture of servility rather than citizenship in which all have their price. If we add the peculiar nature of Italy’s multi-party political system, Berlusconi will have several prospective allies seeking to join him.

Then, there is the centre-left Partito Democratico (Pd). While its lead at the end of 2012 is the largest it has enjoyed for several years, it has a long history of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory. It has been the strongest supporter of Monti and will seek to blame Berlusconi for attempting to wreck the reform agenda. Indeed, Monti’s decision to resign might be a smart move on his part to put the ball back in Berlusconi’s court – and blame him for halting reform. Despite much statesman-like posturing, the centre-left does not have a good record of defending the national interest or putting aside party interests for the sake of economic and political reform. This has really been a long-standing problem fort Italy as a whole. The absence of a strong sense of state and the difficulty of achieving unity and national identity has been a perennial problem since Italian unification.

The forthcoming election, which could be held as early as February, will be decided by the respective solutions on offer for resolving Italy’s economic crisis. Monti initially enjoyed strong support following Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011. He has given some credibility back to Italy’s economic strategy and has received encouragement from Europe in his attempts to tackle tax evasion, liberalising employment practices and addressing the debt crisis. Yet his work remains unfinished and the impact of austerity has been felt and resented by many, not least trade unions who oppose the cuts in public spending, labour reforms and pensions. There are therefore many critics of Monti’s reforms on both right and left who could still have a decisive impact on the election campaign.

It is important to remember that Monti was an unelected technocrat heading a team of so-called experts, many of whom had links to previous political coalitions. During this time he had depended on the parliamentary support of the main parties and has been cautious in upsetting them unduly. At the same time another drama has been played out in Italian civil society which the Italian political class has been keen to ignore but which could have a significant impact on the election. Beppe Grillo’s ‘Five Star Movement’ has been on an extraordinary run and is currently standing at 18%, even higher than Berlusconi’s party. That will change, but Grillo’s voice, appealing to Italians left disillusioned by Italy’s political system, will be a strong one during the campaign. The centre-left has preferred to ignore him, dismissing him as an ‘anti-political’ populist. At times the view of the centre-left towards Grillo has been smug and contemptuous, but they should remember that it is the voters not experts who will decide the election, and Grillo is winning support amongst a younger generation.

Beppe Grillo’s movement is not a solution to Italy’s present crisis but a symptom of it. He could still play a key role and the centre-left could at least acknowledge the reasons for his rise in support, notably amongst a lost generation of Italians, and present a vision that goes beyond short-term electoral deals. For Italy’s problems are immense and deep-rooted, with many of its most talented young people sent into exile by the lack of meritocracy and political corruption, well- highlighted in the new film by Annalisa Piras, Girlfriend in a Coma, based on Bill Emmott’s book Good and Bad Italy, which is intended to stimulate a campaign to ‘wake up Italy’. Time is running out and the spectre of Berlusconi in his last battle, angrier, intolerant, and who will do anything to return to power looms large once again.