Silvio Berlusconi; answers, please

posted by Geoff Andrews at Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Open Democracy 9 June

The response from Italians to my article on openDemocracy posing ten questions to Silvio Berlusconi has been overwhelming. Many have expressed their deep anger at the Italian prime minister's public and private behaviour, which provoked the questions in the first place (see "Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions", 1 June 2009 - and the many comments from Italian citizens, inside and outside the country, that follow).

I have been very moved by what La Repubblica - the Italian newspaper which began the interrogation of Berlusconi with its own dieci domande on 14 May - called the valanga (avalanche) of responses on the openDemocracy site.

Many of these comments indicate a hunger for civic engagement, for further discussion of Italy's problems, and for action to restore democracy and public life in the country

There is also embarrassment, even shame, at the image Berlusconi has imposed on Italy. Some respondents have further highlighted the real dangers to democracy; others call on their compatriots to "wake up". Almost all share deep fears over the direction he is taking Italy, in the face of declining international credibility.

A few correspondents have pointed to the sheer desperation of the current situation. Leoluca Orlando, the former mayor of Palermo and a member of the Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values), wrote to thank me for my efforts. He described the situation in which public institutions in Italy have degenerated under Berlusconi as a "climate of tragedy" that has similarities with Russia in the time of the Tsars.

The Portuguese author Jose Saramago, a Nobel literature laureate, published a scathing article on Berlusconi in the leading Spanish daily newspaper, El País. He described current events in Italy as indicative of a "virus (which) threatens to cause the moral death" of a country whose values of "liberty and dignity" pervade "the music of Verdi and the political action of Garibaldi" (see "La cosa Berlusconi", El País, 7 June 2009).

Saramago even uses the term delincuencia (delinquency) to describe Berlusconi's recent behaviour; he glosses this as the "act of committing crimes, disobeying laws or moral codes". El País has also been printing daily photographs - whose publication is banned in Italy - of scantily dressed young women attending a party at Berlusconi's Villa Certosa in Sardinia.

The world's voice

The scandals and excesses that have marked Silvio Berlusconi's leadership of an Italian government - including the conflict of interests over the vast media networks he owns or controls - have never been fully investigated or resolved. For example, an Italian court ruled on 19 May that the prime minister bribed his British lawyer David Mills by paying him to give false testimony. Berlusconi, however, refuses even to answer serious questions about his conduct. It is impossible to imagine such a situation existing in any other modern European democracy. There is security in the holding of power. Sergio Rizzo & Gian Antonio Stella's best-selling La Casta (2007) offered a devastating critique of the political elite, yet there was zero effect in terms of resignations.

Silvio Berlusconi has stated that the growing criticism of him in the international press has been orchestrated by left-wing opponents. But many of his biggest critics are on the right. In Britain, for example, it is the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist - establishment or centre-right newspapers - that are among the most persistent in examining his record.

Berlusconi's claim that the criticism has been fuelled by the rival media empire of Rupert Murdoch is equally skewed. The reports published in the foreign press should be measured against the evidence they cite. In any event, Berlusconi's own media outlets are vehicles of his own interests and prejudices - so he can hardly scold others on these grounds, even were it true (and he has yet to produce evidence either of left-wing conspiracy or corporate rivalry as a source of attacks on him).

Silvio Berlusconi's refusal to answer important questions over his conduct is now a matter of wide public interest. The results of the elections to the European parliament on 6-7 June suggest that the criticism is having an effect: in a worse-than-expected outcome, Berlusconi's Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL) party won 35% of the vote, a fall from the 37.3% it won the general election of April 2008.

The conduct of this Italian prime minister has important international repercussions. Silvio Berlusconi jets to the White House to meet Barack Obama on 15 June. He hosts the G8 summit in L'Aquila on 8-10 July. The summer heat is rising, and so is the political pressure. Now is the time for some answers.