Thursday, November 25, 2010

The last days of Berlusconi

Despite a massive majority, the Italian Prime Minister is days away from bowing out.

His third election victory in April 2008 was saluted as "historic": nobody in Italy's democratic history had ever won such a huge majority.

A series of factors suggested that Italy's messy political system was braced for stability at last.

A mangled opposition for starters. With the hard left wiped out of parliament for the first time since fascism and the remains of the centre-left worn out by more rows than a couple in the throws of divorce papers, an easy ride in parliament appeared well within Berlusconi's grasp.

Not to mention the media tycoon's notorious grip on the country's television. Lest we forget, 69.3 per cent of Italian voters openly admit telly is influential to the way they cast their ballot.

Add to the equation the recent European trend in favour of centre-right parties, and you can see why the pro-Berlusconi camp had never felt so buoyant.

"This is a historic victory, one that hands Silvio Berlusconi a clear majority and no time for hesitation", wrote some of his supporters two and a half years ago. "This time he's got the experience, his group is cohesive and the targets are clear. No more excuses now".

In the spring of 2008, Italy's most right-wing government since 1945 produced an ambitious programme that included lower taxes, reforming the justice system, reducing the public debt, a more dynamic cabinet and everybody in the country feeling generally wealthier and happier.

Yet in two and a half years, all the Italian government managed to knock together was a number of controversial immunity bills (which critics slammed as "tailor-made" to protect the scandal-ridden PM from prosecution) and a series of anti-immigration measures dictated by Berlusconi's openly xenophobic coalition partners the Northern League.

Otherwise, the Berlusconi ship started treading water pretty much from the off.

First, there was "his brand of bombastic politics", as aptly branded by Sarah Vine in the Times. A style more akin to an Emperor with no boundaries and no sense of decorum produced the first casualty when his wife Veronica Lario announced she wanted a divorce.

"I can no longer stop him from making himself look ridiculous in front of the world, I've reached the end of the line", she said.

Her words ("I cannot remain with a man who consorts with minors") opened a can of worms, with more reports following that the 74-year-old PM was at the core of a network of call girls paid to be sent to his residence (his own lawyer famously described prostitutes as "goods" and Berlusconi as "the end user").

In the meantime, the entire world was left with its mouth agape. Was all this actually taking place in a modern democracy?

But most baffling was Berlusconi's defence. "Better to love women than gays", "I'm loaded, that's why women love me" (school of "so Debbie what first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?") and "I love life and I love women" was all the billionaire could muster without grasping any sense of ridicule.

And while increasing questions were raised over a PM whose behaviour left him exposed to blackmail, Italy found itself grappling with a number of unresolved issues. From cuts to education and street riots, organised crime and uncollected rubbish, as well as rotting heritage in Pompeii and growing poverty, Italy under Berlusconi appears in a total state of chaos.

The final straw came last month in the guise of a
17-year-old aspiring model known as 'Ruby'.

When the girl - who first met the PM at one of his notorious "parties" - was arrested for theft in Milan, it emerged that Berlusconi pressurised police to free her. The PM admitted he helped Ruby, but lamely denied interfering with the justice system.

Last week's news that Berlusconi's loyal long-erm ally and House Speaker Gianfranco Fini took the unprecedented step to leave the government and take with him a number of ministers and MPs signalled the beginning of the end.

"Sometimes I think this is the government of pretending that all is well without taking into account society's problems", said a visibly fed-up Fini in a public speech. "There's a sort of moral decadence, consequence of the progressive loss of decorum from those same public figures who are supposed to set the example", added the right-wing leader, obviously aware that his words would trigger political earthquake.

Fini's supporters declared that they will vote against a crucial vote of confidence on December 14. They may have enough MPs to bring Berlusconi down for good.

The irony is that the end of the empire is not being caused by any particular government policy backfiring or, even less so, by a centre-left opposition still in tatters. Berlusconi's coalition is simply, literally, imploding.

What will happen next nobody knows. But, two weeks from now, the action of a few dozen MPs may end up in history books as the official end of Berlusconismo.

Also on the subject: Help this man (Part 2)


asquith said...

Maybe it's too late now but have you ever seen "Videocracy"? That's an analysis of Berlusconi's media empire & the political & cultural wasteland it has created. I found it grim, but it couldn't have been anything else.

What do you think about the personal consequences for Berlusconi- specifically, will he now be finding himself in prison without power to shield him from the various criminal prosecutions he faces?

I'll tell you my favourite Berlusconi anecdote, from 2006.

(In the first paragraph- probably that reveals more about Italian politics in general than the man himself).

claude said...

"What do you think about the personal consequences for Berlusconi- specifically, will he now be finding himself in prison without power to shield him from the various criminal prosecutions he faces?"

No chance. No politician is ever convicted in Italy. Even when they're sentenced, there's such a labyrinthine system of appeals and counter-appeals that inevitably means the statute of limitations kicks in and everything's hunky dory.

Excellent link by the way :-).

I'll try and get hold of Videocracy. Heard lots about it.

Carl Nesvyashchenko said...

I spent a couple of years in Rome and what always struck me about Italian politics is the way real issues are never discussed.

Say what you like about the UK or France or Germany or Spain but you have more or less normal debates about tax, education, employment, welfare, foreign policy etc etc

In Italy every single one of those ends up being a pro or anti Berlusconi exchange of abuse. It's so sterile you have to see it in order to believe it.