Berlusconi - Should We All Be Worried?

posted by Geoff Andrews at Monday, November 09, 2009

Vision, 6 November

‘Berlusconismo’, the way of ruling which has dominated Italian politics in recent years, has largely been seen as a specifically Italian phenomenon. The roots of this type of rule, consisting of a new populist rapport with the people, control and effective use of a range of media – but notably TV – and continual undermining of Italy’s traditional political class and constitutional norms, lie in the political crisis in Italy in the early 1990s, known as ‘Tangentopoli’, when the entire system was brought into question. Never mind that Silvio Berlusconi, the main beneficiary of this crisis, seemed involved in much of it, notably through his friendship with disgraced Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. His success is due to his ability to blame the political class for its incompetence and arcane ideological baggage and to present himself as the only alternative, often as the personal success story of a multimillionaire who knows how to ‘get things done’, even if he has to cut a few corners amid a colourful private life.

Silvio Berlusconi has dominated Italian politics for the last fifteen years and has defeated six centre-left leaders, leaving the opposition weak and divided. There has always been interest from the international media over why he has been able to do this; winning not once, but three times at the polls of national elections. The interest has intensified in recent weeks as the public and private aspects of Berlusconi’s rule – always difficult to separate – now appear to have converged irretrievably, firstly in the case of Noemi Letizia and then in the ruling of the Constitutional Court which judged his parliamentary immunity unlawful.

Most correspondents and commentators see this as an essentially Italian story. Some have asked however whether the nature of Berlusconi’s rule could be part of a wider global phenomenon. Certainly, his capacity – with the help of the Northern League – to win over former working class heartlands has a wider connection to those growing parties of the extreme right in Europe which have sought populist solutions, for example taking a strong line on immigration. Furthermore, Berlusconi’s attack on the political class has wider significance if we think of the disillusion of politicians in many different countries; for example, the reaction to the parliamentary expenses scandal in the UK. However, in the last analysis, it is essentially an Italian story, with Silvio Berlusconi’s brand of ‘postmodern populism’ rooted in a critique of Italy’s long-standing crisis of the state. It is the extent to which this populism is now in conflict with democratic and constitutional procedures and the liberal ethics which underpin transparency, freedom of the press, and the rule of law, which worries his European allies.