After Berlusconi - Italy Faces its Biggest Challenge

posted by Geoff Andrews at Wednesday, November 27, 2013

If, as expected, Senators vote to expel Silvio Berlusconi from the Italian parliament later today it will mark a decisive moment for the country. For the last two decades Silvio Berlusconi has dominated not only Italian politics but Italian society, propelling it on a disastrous course. More than anyone he has been responsible for turning it into the most degenerate body politic in Western Europe. Italy has lived under his shadow and its futures, hopes and aspirations of its young people have been jeopardised for too long.

However, if the vote is carried – and even at this late stage there is no guarantee – then big questions and Italy’s most challenging tasks remain. Firstly, the vote to remove him from parliament is unlikely to end his political career or his aspirations for power. After all that has happened - fraud trials, Bunga Bunga parties, and mounting economic crisis - the centre-right still leads in the polls and as yet it has no capable alternative leader. As we know from the past, Berlusconi can be a tough opponent, and as a wounded jackal can be at his most dangerous. He has now re-formed Forza Italia!, his own campaigning personal fan base which first brought him to power nearly twenty years ago.

Secondly, despite much rhetoric from the centre- left, Berlusconi has never been politically defeated in any decisive way. The shambolic circumstances in which Enrico Letta’s government came to office after an inconclusive February General Election and the subsequent posturing and bloodletting within the Democratic Party only played into Berlusconi’s hands; and that despite the personal crisis which had engulfed him intensifying as his conviction for fraud was upheld in August. On the contrary, the left’s timidity and failure to provide an alternative vision has always been a key element in his success, coupled with the inability of Italy’s political class to reform its political institutions and offer a path to reform. Those two factors explain why Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement continues to prosper at the polls, even if they do not have a coherent political alternative.

Therefore, the key question is this: once Berlusconi is removed from office, can Italy also free itself from the most serious and debilitating aspects of his legacy, namely the culture of illegality, an economy that stopped working a long time ago and a political system that habitually looks after its own interests? Since being in office Enrico Letta has at least managed to avoid being overly drawn in to Berlusconi’s predicaments, concentrating instead on holding together a fragile coalition which includes the centre right, though not any longer Berlusconi’s part of it. He will be helped in the short term by Angelino Alfano’s newly formed group of ‘moderates’ which have broken from Berlusconi. However, Italy needs more than short-term stability; it requires a clear signal of political and economic reform, an opening up of society and economy to allow a generational shift in the balance of power.

That is why the government should not any longer be constrained by Berlusconi’s agenda, despite the interest and speculation that will be fuelled by the departure from the pitch of the ‘great survivor’. In typically robust manner Berlusconi has timed a TV appearance to coincide with this evening’s Senate vote, a reminder too of the extent of the power he can still draw on outside parliament. He won’t go easily and will campaign furiously if the vote goes against him. There is some optimism that this time Italy’s politicians have learned. The signs are not go