Italy's Problems Do Not End With Berlusconi

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, August 02, 2009

Financial Times, 31 July

The now daily revelations about Silvio Berlusconi’s sex life suggest to many a leader unfit to govern. Yet in the extensive coverage in the international press and the growing condemnation of the Italian prime minister’s behaviour, bigger problems are being missed that go to the heart of Italy’s decline and which will not be remedied solely by his removal from office.

The central issue in the background is the extent of corruption at the heart of the government, and the lack of transparency and accountability that bedevils efforts to deal with it. There is a culture of illegality that runs through Italian politics and extends to society, from habitual tax evasion and Mafia involvement in building contracts – including, many suspect, ones currently being negotiated in earthquake-ravaged L’Aquila – to the fixing of football matches. Italy has easily the highest proportion of MPs found guilty of criminal offences in Europe. Mr Berlusconi has faced down many court cases of his own, successfully avoiding prosecution merely by virtue of parliamentary immunity legislation introduced by his own government.

There are two main reasons why this situation has been allowed to continue. First, Mr Berlusconi presides over a regime built through his media empire, which includes the ownership or control of almost the entire television network and significant publishing ventures. Even Rai, the public broadcaster – which has faced much political interference from Mr Berlusconi – has refused to carry any coverage of the allegations linking him to the escort girl Patrizia D’Addario on its main news channel.

The second reason is the continual failure to open up Italy’s political system following the “Tangentopoli” corruption crisis of the early 1990s, which brought down the ruling Christian Democrats. The Italian left has gone through a severe crisis of identity and several name changes in recent years, and has failed to develop the reforming agenda that this moment of opportunity demanded.

Perversely, it has been Mr Berlusconi who has benefited most from this political vacuum. Since his arrival on the scene in 1994, he has reshaped Italian political culture and values in his own image. The merging of his Forza Italia with the post-fascist National Alliance last year into the People of Freedom Party only consolidated his control, as his allies depend on his patronage, power and popularity with voters. Even the Northern League, which brought down Mr Berlusconi’s first government in 1994, depends on his leadership.

The opposition is currently having its own leadership dilemmas, as it attempts to find someone capable of what seven centre-left leaders – with the exception of Romano Prodi – have failed to do: defeat Mr Berlusconi. The decision of the last incumbent, Walter Veltroni, to resist what he called “anti-Berlusconism” merely allowed the prime minister’s conflict of interests to remain unchallenged. The failure of Italy’s political class to reform itself over many decades has meant Mr Berlusconi’s populism has been able to address some of the everyday fears of Italians, however incongruous this may seem to outsiders.

The situation has become so serious that Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the Italy of Values party who led the “Clean Hands” anti-corruption movement in the early 1990s, recently placed an advertisement in the international press calling on foreigners to help “save Italian democracy”. Shortly after, the comic blogger Beppe Grillo decided to stand for the leadership of the Democratic party, the main opposition party. Both developments are symptoms of the same problem, namely that there is neither an alternative leader nor a strong movement for change at home capable of delivering credible government.

Even when Mr Berlusconi does finally leave – and despite some fall in support there is no reason to believe his departure is imminent – there is little hope that the cross-party collaboration needed to introduce a new electoral system, more public accountability, greater media independence, and more competition to open up markets, will follow. The international condemnation of the Italian premier’s behaviour has at least brought the early beginnings of national self-examination. We will wait to see whether this will lead to further introspection, or the energy to drive a new spirit of reform in the future.