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.