Who's Afraid of Silvio Berlusconi?

posted by Geoff Andrews at Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Open Democracy 27 - 07 - 2009

The exposure of Silvio Berlusconi's public-personal behaviour continues. The website of L'Espresso magazine has made available audio-tapes containing sordid details of the Italian prime minister's alleged overnight tryst with a prostitute on the very evening of Barack Obama's election as United States president, 4-5 November 2008. In a sense, however, it is the way such revelations have been handled in Italy as much as the evidence itself that is most telling.

What the reception confirms is something that is now also becoming apparent to the wider world: that Silvio Berlusconi presides over a regime. The Italian public broadcaster Rai is directly under his control and refuses to discuss the scandal; Berlusconi himself owns most of the other TV stations. The consequences for Italian democracy, and for Italy's credibility within the European Union, are now matters of grave concern (see "Berlusconi's scandal, Italy's tragedy", 29 June 2009).

The sole channels of serious information for Italian citizens are La Repubblica and L'Espresso (both owned by the same publishing house), along with one or two other broadsheets. The foreign press - most notably the British - has by contrast provided sustained discussion of the issue. Silvio Berlusconi's response has been that the attacks on him are part of a "subversive plot" organised in collaboration with the Italian left.

This is nonsense, on two grounds: there is no plot, and the foreign press's effective and appropriate critical examination of Berlusconi's conduct is of a kind that the Italian left is quite unable of producing. Indeed, part of the reason why Silvio Berlusconi's regime has consolidated its power in recent times has been the absence of any real opposition. Dario Franceschini, the present leader of the main centre-left force Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), claims that Berlusconi will be replaced by autumn 2009; but it is clear that his own party is in no shape to take over.

A deeper vacuum

Two recent events highlight the non-existence of a proper opposition in Italy. The first is a full-page appeal-advertisement placed on 9 July 2009 in the respected International Herald Tribune newspaper by Antonio Di Pietro, who in the early 1990s led the mane pulite (clean hands) investigation into political corruption and now heads the Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party. "Italian democracy is in danger" the appeal declared. The commitment of Di Pietro's party to a firm and progressive agenda - constitutional government and the rule of law, transparency and anti-mafia reform - should make it a shaping force, and in a more normal country it surely would be. But at under 10% of the vote it remains marginalised.

The second is an announcement on 12 July by the comic blogger Beppe Grillo - an acerbic and relentless critic of the corruption at the heart of Italy's political class - of his candidature for the primary stage of elections to choose a new leader of the Democratic Party. This "provocation" was ridiculed by some of the party's apparatchiks, who nonetheless made immediate efforts to prevent Grillo acquiring a party card.

Beppe Grillo's criticisms, both of the power of Berlusconi and of the impotence of the opposition, strike a chord with many Italians. Many others may not see him as a serious figure, but his very influence is a sign of a deeper vacuum in the body-politic.

Together, these developments illuminate the long decline of the Italian left - since the end of the cold war, and notably after the tangentopoli crisis - to lead Italy towards the democratic settlement which the "second republic" had promised.

Indeed, by a cruel twist the main beneficiary of tangentopoli was the close friend and part-protégé of Bettino Craxi, the (socialist) Italian premier whom the corruption scandal toppled and then drove to seek exile: Silvio Berlusconi himself (see Perry Anderson's magisterial analysis of this period and its consequences in the London Review of Books: "An Entire Order Converted into What It Was Intended to End" [12 February 2009] and "An Invertebrate Left" [12 March 2009]).

The Italian left seems - the first of the L'Ulivo (Olive Tree) governments of 1996-2001 apart - to have learned nothing from a series of defeats. The "transformation" of the majority of the old Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party) - a mass-membership party widely respected for its wise leadership, long-standing opposition to fascism and ability to implant itself into the popular culture - into (successively) the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) and the Democratic Party has been an incoherent process beset by identity-crises and endless infighting. The past is a shackle and the future a fog; all that remains is the "morbid symptoms".

A phantom opposition

The most persistent failure of the centre-left has been the unwillingness to carry through the legal and democratic reforms Antonio Di Pietro and others argued for. Above all, the centre-left missed numerous opportunities to pass legislation which would have prevented Silvio Berlusconi's "conflicts of interest"; it even accepted the parliamentary-immunity law which has effectively kept the three-time Italian prime minister out of jail.

The leaders who presided over this enduring infirmity are still there. Some even retain respect amounting to reverence among the centre-left's followers. They include Massimo D'Alema, who abandoned the "conflicts-of-interest" legal effort in an attempt to reach agreement over bicameral reform (which didn't even succeed) contributed greatly to Berlusconi's initial rise to power. Even today elements of the centre-left regard D'Alema as the "greatest politician of the last twenty years"; yet he has done nothing significant and in most serious democratic countries would have been removed a long time ago.

There are worse than D'Alema. Walter Veltroni, the first leader of the Democratic Party, embarked upon a disastrous strategy of appeasing Berlusconi's excesses by opposing what he called "anti-Berlusconism" as a prerequisite to negotiating constitutional and electoral reform. It was a crucial misjudgment of the kind of adversary he and the centre-left were dealing with.

Veltroni had begun his new political project by raising expectations of a genuine breakthrough, but his preference for portentous statements over measurable political advance soon undermined his credibility; the contrast between his embrace of Barack Obama's presidential-election slogan (Si Puo Fare [yes we can]) and his lack of any of the American leader's vision or courage was stark.

The arc of Veltroni's rise and fall was swift: in the election of April 2008, he became the seventh centre-left leader to fall before the Silvio Berlusconi steamroller (and one of the most ineffective, which is saying a lot). The impact of Walter Veltroni's approach was, as the Economist rightly said, to make his side of the political divide a "phantom opposition".

A clear danger

The emergence in Italy of vigorous civil-society opposition to Berlusconi (including the girotondi) makes the non-appearance of any strong reformist political movement since the days of tangentopoli even more disturbing. What Perry Anderson calls the "invertebrate left" bears much of the blame, for its absence of principle and courage. The Democratic Party's current preoccupation with electing a new leader shows no sign of breaking the pattern at a time when offering a clear alternative agenda to Silvio Berlusconi's is vital.

Silvio Berlusconi is increasingly reliant for his continuation in power on the crony-filled networks he has established in key institutions and positions. His patronage extends to his rightwing political allies; a process consolidated by the merger of his Forza Italia with the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) in 2008, and a further incorporation in March 2009. The most recent scandals have begun to erode some of his popular support and encourage his critics. But it is important to recognise that - after La Repubblica's questions and openDemocracy's challenge, after criticism from Catholic leaders and foreign media, after revelations of shocking public-personal behaviour - the underlying political reality is unchanged: there is no alternative to Silvio Berlusconi.

The plight of Italian democracy offers much to worry about. The lack of serious and effective political opposition is one of the most worrying factors of all. It's time to lay aside the fear, and rise to a clear and present danger.