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|Berlusconi’s bubble is almost at bursting point|
The Times - March 22nd 2010
If Italian voters put in the boot, the Prime Minister’s coalition partners can seize the chance to bring him down
You will, of course, be astonished to learn that for the past two months Italian newspapers have been dominated by tales of corruption, sex, abuse of power, Mafia connections and transcripts of intercepted telephone calls — often, in fact, stories involving all five. Some, though by no means all, have involved a certain Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate who has been Prime Minister for seven of the past nine years.
Mr Berlusconi, ever the actor, responded at first to the wave of scandals by trying to impersonate the French police chief in Casablanca, saying he was shocked, shocked, to find corruption was going on in Italy, even as his own trials for alleged bribery were still rumbling along in the background. Now he has resorted to his old tactic of playing the victim, declaring that all the country’s judiciary are communists who are out to get him. All you need is love, he said at a mass rally in Rome on Saturday, perhaps hoping for support from Lennon against the Leninists.
It is, as usual, a fine opera buffa, a comedy that tends tragically to confirm foreigners’ stereotypes about Italy, or at least about Italian politics. It is tempting to do as many Italians do, to shrug your shoulders and to say that nothing can be done. It is tempting, too, to assume that Mr Berlusconi is just a reflection of what many Italians would like to be — rich, cheerful, powerful, able to bed any starlet he wants and to avoid any law he dislikes — and so is always going to be popular. Yet there are signs that the opera might be about to come to a serious climax.
When the fat lady sings, there could be the very good outcome that Mr Berlusconi’s party splits up, and hence his Government collapses, bringing an end to his prime ministership three years before a general election is due. But there is another possible outcome: that he uses his demagogic appeal and media control to survive, and then to launch a fresh assault on the institutions that he considers to be his enemy, as they are the only brakes on his power: the judiciary, the constitutional court and even the presidency. If that were to happen, the results could be truly dismal.
The story that is unfolding in Italy is anything but amusing. When the country had its previous great political corruption scandal, in the early 1990s, it seemed as if one dirty system might be ending and that a new, cleaner one could gradually emerge. The series of scandals that began in early February with allegations of corruption over public contracts for earthquake relief in the province of Abruzzo last year have shown that, if anything, the system is now even dirtier.
Barely a day goes by without another disturbing allegation of fraud, corruption or simple abuse of power, generally in politics and government but also in business.
The good news for Mr Berlusconi is that the dirt is everywhere: opposition politicians have also been caught with their fingers in tills and, yes, with their pants down. The bad news for him, though, is that the scandals have also badly dented his main boast, namely that he and his people have a monopoly on competence. The broader moral, however, is that, while Mr Berlusconi has not created all this malfeasance single-handedly, he bears a heavy responsibility for its persistence and spread, and for the culture of impunity it reflects.
Ever since he swept into politics in 1994 claiming to herald a new political future, he has worked relentlessly to preserve the past, to protect himself against all legal challenges, and to strengthen the role of personal power as opposed to the rule of law or of institutions. His own company has a virtual monopoly of commercial television and a tight grip on the advertising business too, a level of power that would not be permitted by competition authorities in any other European Union country. He saw off opposition efforts to bring in conflict-of-interest legislation to restrict his use of that media power for political ends, essentially by buying off enough opposition parliamentarians. He is not just “popular”: he is far too powerful for the good of Italy and its democracy.
So why should it ever end? Next Sunday and Monday, voters go to the polls to elect 13 of Italy’s 20 regional governors. As 11 of those regions are currently held by the centre-left Opposition, Mr Berlusconi had been hoping that his centre-right party, the Party of Liberty (PdL), would oust quite a few of them, reinvigorating him and his party at the national level too. The scandals, plus some extraordinary incompetence in his own party that resulted in its candidates being excluded from the race in Lazio, the region that includes Rome, have put that into severe doubt. Hence Saturday’s rally: he is trying to “take to the piazzas” to rekindle his popularity.
His media power and his campaigning ability are his great strength. But, apart from large sums of money, they are also his only strength. The good thing about Mr Berlusconi is, in a sense, that he has no ideology: he claims to be a campaigner for freedom, but in fact the only freedom that interests him is his own. For that reason, though, his political allies, who include Gianfranco Fini, former head of the post-Fascist National Alliance party, which merged into the PdL a year ago, and the separatist Northern League party, are strictly fairweather friends. They will be by his side only for as long as he looks powerful.
That is why these regional elections matter. Mr Fini has just launched his own new movement, called Generation Italy, in preparation for breaking away from Mr Berlusconi’s party, or taking it over, if the chance arises. A debacle for the PdL, following the long series of sex-related scandals that embroiled the Prime Minister last summer, could finally destroy the myth of his invincibility.
At that point, after a vote of no confidence, Mr Berlusconi could be forced to resign, and President Giorgio Napolitano could try to broker a caretaker, technocratic government to clean up some of the current mess and then to prepare the way for new national elections in a year or two’s time. But if Mr Berlusconi were to bounce back, beating off the opposition in his own party, there could be a different sort of clean-up: he has promised a grand “reform” of the judiciary, and would dearly love, too, to neuter or capture the presidency.
A top Italian businessman, no admirer of Mr Berlusconi, predicted to me recently that “he will not be eating the panettone”. This is a charming Milanese way of saying that he will be gone by Christmas, when such cake is served. How much better if he were to be gone by Easter.