Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

And then get rid of Berlusconismo...
L´espresso - November 25th 2010

The strangest thing about Silvio Berlusconi is that he has appeared unconcerned about leaving any kind of a legacy, any set of achievements through which he might be remembered. All he has wanted, apart from his personal interests, has been numbers: his time in office, the size of his majorities and poll-ratings, the numbers of summits attended. To his critics, this is one of his few merits: that there has been no real Berlusconi agenda or ideology. But that does not mean he has not left a trail: long after the man has passed from the scene, Berlusconismo will remain.

            It begins with a pre-democratic idea: the cult of personality. It progresses through the use of public office for private purposes, whether through corruption or the protection of personal interests. It spreads through the use of patronage to reward followers and extend power, killing stone-dead the idea of meritocracy. It is founded, firmly, on a quasi-monopolistic control of a powerful business sector, commercial TV, and on the use of newspapers and political appointees in public broadcasting to disseminate propaganda and control the flow of information. It is expressed in the steady and deliberate erosion of other institutions of the state, notably the judiciary. It finds its basest expression in the exploitation and demeaning of women, and the undermining not only of moral standards but of any aspiration towards gender equality.

            Such attitudes and practices have, over 17 years in politics, and about a decade more than that in business, assaulted moral, institutional and democratic standards in Italy, and have harmed the country’s image all around the world. But how can those attitudes and practices now be eliminated, and replaced by better ones?

            The task of ridding Italy of Berlusconismo depends, before all else, on the degree to which Berlusconi himself has really left the scene: even after departing from Palazzo Chigi he may well continue to wield considerable political and commercial power, which will influence the process, as well as harbouring ambitions to return to office. Even beyond that, however, two principles need to be accepted.

            The first is that patience is required. Berlusconi did not establish his power and influence overnight—his 1994 government was an abject failure, and it took a further seven years before he really became dominant. So nor should a new political set-up be expected to arrive suddenly, as if descending from heaven.  It will take several years before the real post-Berlusconi political era emerges.

            The second principle to accept is the fact that Berlusconismo has come to be shared by many people in Italian politics and in other centres of power in the country, whether on the right, centre or left. Partly, that reflects the fact that Berlusconi did not invent all these ills: he exploited and amplified existing traits and tendencies. Also, however, it reflects the fact that other politicians and other political forces made their own accommodations with Berlusconismo: why else did centre-left governments fail to pass any serious legislation dealing with the conflict-of-interest issue?

            Berlusconi may have had a near-monopoly of television, but he has not had a monopoly of corruption, of abuse of power, or of scandals. Nor have his TV channels been solely responsible for the decline of moral standards or the demeaning of women: even supposedly progressive talk-shows on RAI often treat women as mere showgirls. So no-one should expect it to be easy, smooth or simple to move the country on.

            All that said, the task of cleaning the Augean Stables of Berlusconismo needs to begin somewhere. I would suggest three top priorities, to divert politics and society away from the worst traits that have become entrenched these past two decades, followed or supported by one other main issue.

            The first priority is a matter for the constitutional nerds, but it is nevertheless important. It is the reform of the electoral law. As an Englishman, I am flattered by the admiration often found in Italy for my country’s almost-bipolar party system, its majoritarian electoral law and its alternation of government. But the attention is misplaced, for such a system does not suit Italy’s more fractured politics. And the combination of majority premiums, party lists and the move to prior nomination of prime ministerial candidates, all given their fullest expression in the 2005 electoral law, have simply played into the hands of Berlusconismo.

            A personality was king, almost literally, and this system produced coalitions fit to win elections but not to govern—except to produce laws designed to suit the interests of the ruling personality. Neither the centre-right coalitions nor the arrangements on the left have proved to be anything more than artificial contrivances. And by yielding a bipolar system without any agreement on the rules of the political game—the essential ingredient in Britain’s institutional stability—the consensus needed for any thorough-going reform has been elusive or plain unattainable.

            Instead, a new electoral law ought best to reflect Italy’s true political nature, namely that it consists of many interest groups and many different ways of thinking, among which consensus needs to be formed. It should shun the cult of personality among the party leaders, should be proportional without a majority premium, should (as in Germany) simply have a 5% threshold in order to eliminate the tinier parties, and should leave coalition negotiations to occur after elections, not before them, for that way they have a greater chance of being effective. My pick would be Ireland’s “single transferable vote” method, but others would no doubt have their preferences.

            The second priority is the justice system. The temptation, in politics and in some of the magistracy, will be to seek revenge. I would prefer reform instead. The Berlusconi years have featured a steady erosion of the institutions of justice, by direct attack, by driving magistrates to become overly political, or by neglecting the crying need to make justice more efficient and fair. The atmosphere has been so adversarial and self-interested that no serious discussion of reform has been able to take place.

            Now, that chance should be seized. It needs to be seized jointly by whatever is the government of the day and by the main institutions of the judiciary, both the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura and the National Magistrates Association. Wide agreement will be needed if any reform is to be credible. Its targets can and should include simple issues such as the need for a national register of criminal and civil cases, and more complex ones such as the need to reform procedures to reduce backlogs and ensure timelier justice.

            The third priority is openness and competition. That second word—competition—is unpopular in Italy. But at the root of Berlusconismo has been a lack of both competition and openness, allowing and inducing powers to become entrenched, corruption to spread, advantage to be gained by collusion with the state. The over-riding need is for the anti-trust authority not merely to police existing law but to have regulatory powers for the creation and enforcement of a genuinely single, open market. That will be hard to get agreement on. But fortunately there are a couple of sectors on which a useful start could be made.

            Those sectors are commercial television and advertising. Control of them has given Berlusconi his power, so opening them up to competition might be seen simply as revenge. Partly, it would be. But also, the point would be to ensure that no political or business forces could repeat that dominance, by breaking up the existing near-monopolies, by lowering barriers to entry, and by legislating to ensure both political plurality and the banning of conflicts of interest between government and commerce.

            The effort to eliminate Berlusconismo could then go deeper into the media, by producing new governance arrangements for RAI that push back interference there by all the political parties, and go more widely into competition enforcement in the rest of the economy. Without both, meritocracy will be no more than a slogan, pluralism no more than a cynical illusion, accountability and freedom of information simply a confidence trick.

            Those priorities will be hard enough to achieve. But I would also add one other crucial issue: the labour law. The current two-tier system is impoverishing the young and driving the talented abroad, all to reduce industry’s costs without infringing the rights of permanent workers. But that is short-sighted, unfair and anti-meritocratic. A new law, best initiated by the left, is needed to replace this dual system with a single one that combines fairness with flexibility. It is not directly related to Berlusconismo. But if a fresh, modern, fair, meritocratic start is desired, a new labour law is vital.


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