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Italy: The Triumph of TV

Silvio Berlusconi has turned Italian politics inside out like a rubber glove. The old Italian politics of the First Republic, established in 1946, were based on the assumption that what was publicly visible, or audible, had no intrinsic significance. What mattered was what lay behind the speaker’s words. Hence the peculiarly Italian discipline of dietrologia, or the science of “what’s behind it all.” The greatest master of the political techniques of oblique suggestion and implication was Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat who dominated Italian politics for some thirty years; in a short, enigmatic phrase he could conjure up vast visions of power and secrecy, like a Piranesi dungeon. On a lower plane, the dense obscurity of more ordinary political discourse conveyed the correct impression that politics was a game for initiates.

In the meantime, however, Italians themselves became ever more concerned with appearances—a strong national trait in any event. Now we have in Berlusconi a prime minister with “the sun in his pocket,” 1 a salesman of dreams and miracles. With the crumbling of the old political class under the blows of Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”), and the arrest and prosecution of more than a thousand politicians and businessmen for corruption, government has become, at least temporarily, more open. But the reign of illusions has replaced the reign of secrecy. The purgatory of tangentopoli—bribe city—has been replaced by an artificial paradise.

The left-wing coalition—the ex-Communists of the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) and their allies—was widely expected to win the March elections, but they underrated the threat presented by Silvio Berlusconi. To many commentators last January, the left’s victory seemed certain because the various parties of the right were unable to form a coalition. The federalism of Umberto Bossi’s Northern League was diametrically opposed to the nationalism of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), led by Gianfranco Fini. At the congress of the Northern League in February, Bossi promised his supporters, “With the Fascists, never!” Berlusconi solved this problem through a brilliant sleight of hand. Since his potential allies flatly refused to join a single electoral coalition, he formed separate alliances with each, which he called “poles,” the Polo delle Libertà with the League and the Polo del Buongoverno with Alleanza Nazionale, the right-wing front whose core of support was the MSI. This was a workable solution because the MSI’s strength was concentrated in Rome and the surrounding Lazio region, and in the South, where the League vote was negligible.

Berlusconi was too easily dismissed when he announced in January that he would organize a new national party, Forza Italia. His vast holdings in real estate, department stores, publishing, and television stations had been built up with the help of the old regime. In particular, many commentators assumed that his involvement with the corrupt Socialist leader Bettino Craxi would be enough to discredit him. Several leading members of Berlusconi’s entourage were under investigation for corruption, particularly in connection with the passage of the notorious law which allowed Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest to retain all three of his private television channels. Why did the general assumption prove false, and why, in fact, did the accusations against Berlusconi turn out to provoke a reaction in his favor?

The answer, I think, lies partly in a shift in public opinion in reaction to the extraordinary burst of prosecutions by the magistrates in Milan, Rome, and elsewhere. Antonio Di Pietro, the Milan magistrate who began and continued the Clean Hands prosecutions, has remained a national hero, but the attacks on the prosecutors made by well-known public figures on Berlusconi’s payroll—which began well before the election campaign—have had an effect. The much-publicized former art critic Vittorio Sgarbi made use of his peculiar talent for near-hysterical abuse when he criticized the magistrates for their excessive rigor in arresting suspects. Oceans of crocodile tears were shed on behalf of the victims of the magistrates’ alleged persecution. Di Pietro’s colleagues on the prosecution team were charged with protecting the ex-Communists of the PDS. While the leaders of almost all other major parties, including even the Northern League’s Umberto Bossi, were implicated in one form of corruption or another by the magistrates, the leaders of the PDS, Achille Occhetto and Massimo D’Alema, were left alone. One of the Milan magistrates, the attractive red-haired Tiziana Parenti, resigned after disagreements with what she saw as her colleagues’ reluctance to press forward with the investigation of the PDS. She later became a candidate for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

However, I believe that the growing reaction against the severity of the prosecuting magistrates had deeper causes. The Italian public found the spectacle of Mani Pulite fascinating but also disturbing. It reached its climax in the televised trial of Sergio Cusani, the manager of the huge Ferruzzi business group who was accused of distributing over $100 million to various political parties. No doubt it was satisfying to see one leading politician after another squirm on the witness stand under the relentless interrogation of Antonio Di Pietro; the normally expressionless Arnaldo Forlani, the former secretary of the Christian Democrat Party, literally foamed at the mouth while being questioned. But the activism of the magistrates had consequences that were less pleasing to the average Italian. Italy is, after all, a society in which obeying the law is often virtually impossible and in which rights have been largely replaced by privileges, dispensed by the parties.^2 Fear of being prosecuted paralyzed the public administration; for many officials the alternative to political favoritism and corruption was inaction. Since the campaign against corruption coincided with a period of economic recession, the prosecutors were blamed for the recession’s effects.3 Not all the reactions against them can be put down to cynicism or the lack of civic sense; one of the blind spots of the left, in fact, was its failure to appreciate the legitimate anxiety produced by a system in which the uncontrolled proliferation of laws and regulations is only matched by the arbitrary way in which they are applied. The comments in the right-wing press on this arbitrariness were telling:

The bank cashier will never be certain, at the end of the day, that he has not violated some new, obscure norm against riciclaggio [the laundering of illegal profits]…

The public official, when he signs a document, will always be afraid of being accused of some presumed omission or abuse… In every action, in fact, we risk the violation of a norm of whose existence we do not have the faintest idea.4

In such a situation, demands for aggressive enforcement of the law were bound to provoke unease as well as approval. Popular resentment was concentrated against politicians such as Craxi, who were identified simply as “thieves.” There was much less indignation against the businessmen who gave bribes.

Against this background, one can understand why Forza Italia’s attacks on the undue harshness and political bias of the prosecuting magistrates were surprisingly well received, and why, conversely, the left’s attempts to make charges of corruption and Mafia involvement against Berlusconi’s entourage were seen as unjust persecution. Of course many civic-minded Italians have been reluctant to criticize magistrates who have, almost single-handedly, for the first time succeeded in making leading politicians accountable before the law. But the argument that it was not possible to halt the regular processes of investigation just because there was an electoral campaign underway is not really convincing. In fact, in 1992 Di Pietro admitted that he had deliberately held up the original Mani Pulite investigations until after the elections so as not to be accused of trying to influence the result. During the 1994 campaign he stayed conspicuously quiet while stories of impending prosecutions continued to circulate. A few days before the elections, a journalist of the daily La Stampa quoted the head of the anti-Mafia parliamentary commission, Luciano Violante, a former magistrate and PDS deputy, as confirming the current rumors that one of Berlusconi’s closest aides, the managing director of Publitalia, was under investigation by the Catania prosecutor’s office. When he was attacked by Berlusconi’s TV channels and the right-wing press for a gross breach of confidence, Violante felt that he had no alternative but to resign, although he denied strongly that he had ever made the statement attributed to him. He said that he was resigning because he did not wish to prejudice the work of the anti-Mafia commission. He also seems to have felt that his own party gave him insufficient support.5

This error was immediately followed by another episode which allowed Berlusconi to protest that he was the victim of a deliberate campaign of intimidation by the prosecutors. On the orders of a Calabrian magistrate, Maria Grazia Omboni, the police searched the Rome headquarters of Forza Italia to investigate alleged links between its local organizations and the secret Freemason lodges that are often mentioned in accounts of Italian intrigue. The magistrate protested that she had never ordered the search, but only requested information, and it is possible that the special branch of the police, Digos, exceeded its instructions; but this excuse was, to say the least, naive. The president of Italy, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, sensibly commented that the magistracy, as a power of the state, could not ignore questions of political timing.6 According to Berlusconi’s pollster, Gianni Pilo, the Violante affair and its aftermath were decisive in determining a last-minute swing of votes in Berlusconi’s favor.

Even more striking, and less excusable, than the assumptions made by his opponents about Berlusconi’s vulnerability was the failure to recognize the devastating impact of his new style of campaigning. Indeed, it hardly seemed possible that an improvised political movement would win the largest share of the vote only two months after it was founded. In fact, the initial popular support generated by Berlusconi’s “entry into the field”7 was so strong that, on all the evidence, it was in the first weeks, before the election campaign was officially under way, that he achieved his commanding lead. During this time, the forces of the progressisti—the PDS and the smaller leftist parties allied with it—were preoccupied by their internal disputes and hardly seem to have woken up to what was happening. As an Argentinian political scientist said on another occasion, it was not that the political commentators’ predictions were wrong; it was just that reality had changed. Like the French generals in 1940, the politicians on the left were fighting the last war, and they were powerless to stem the impact of Berlusconi’s coordinated media blitzkrieg—televised press conferences and speeches and high-powered advertising campaigns, all shown at length on Berlusconi’s three nationwide television stations.

Intellectuals, particularly in Italy, tend to distrust obvious explanations, and it has become fashionable to say that television does not explain Berlusconi’s success. This is at best a half-truth. Without his command of television, Berlusconi would not even have existed as a significant political figure. It was his control of the media—along with the financial resources to maintain that control—that made him an attractive ally for the Northern League and the Alleanza Nazionale. They were strong in organization, but had relatively little access to television and the other mass media. It is true that both parties had, in a way, derived a paradoxical benefit from being largely excluded from television. It made them more credible as “anti-system” parties. But this was a waning asset. Bossi probably believed that he, rather than Berlusconi, would be the main beneficiary of their electoral alliance. In parliamentary strength, this was true. Owing to the new electoral system, the League became the single largest party in the governing coalition; but in votes, with 8.4 percent, it was quite outclassed by Forza Italia’s 21 percent, and even by Alleanza Nazionale’s 13.5 percent.8 In fact, the League finished fifth, the PDS coming second and the Popolari—the party of the former Christian Democrats—fourth.

  1. 1

    The reference is to Berlusconi’s advice to his salesmen: make them believe you have the sun in your pocket. I owe this phrase, and much else, to Professor Patrick McCarthy of the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center. Many thanks also for helpful suggestions to my other former colleagues at the center: Professors David Ellwood, John Harper, and Thomas Row.

  2. 3

    See J. Arias, “Il fascino del nuovo,” Micromega, May-June 1994, pp. 54- 55: Arias, a correspondent for El País, found that from Turin to Palermo the complaints about the repercussions of Mani Pulite were surprisingly similar. “The judges do well to put the thieves in prison, but the truth is that from the time the Mani Pulite case broke out, we work less, less money circulates” (Turin); “Everything is at a halt…. The amount of bureaucracy needed to obtain a license has doubled” (Voghera); “Now that there is no corruption we work half as much. For us, it means ruin” (Palermo, taxi driver); “I voted for Leoluca Orlando [the mayor of Palermo and a leading opponent of the Mafia], but now we’ve had enough, we can’t bear to hear any more about the anti-Mafia” (Palermo, cakeshop owner).

  3. 4

    P. di Muccio, “E adesso salvateci dalle leggi incivili,” Il Giornale, April 25, 1994, p. 36. See also Sgroi’s article cited in footnote 2. The tendency of Italian legislation is continually to add new laws without abrogating the old ones. It has been estimated that there are over 100,000 laws in existence, compared with about 6,000 in France.

  4. 5

    La Stampa, March 22, 1994; Corriere della Sera, March 23, 24, 1994. Violante, in the press and to me in a recent conversation, insisted that the journalist had put words into his mouth “which I in no way confirmed.”

  5. 6

    La Repubblica, March 24, 1994.

  6. 7

    The Italian phrase “la discesa in campo” is commonly used of football teams.

  7. 8

    The new electoral system allotted three fourths of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies to single-member constituencies, while the remaining one fourth were selected by proportional representation, with a 4 percent minimum threshold. The Forza Italia electoral list had the greatest number of successful candidates (143), but they included thirty-two representatives of the CCD, the right-wing secessionist group formed after the split of the old DC, and a smaller number of Radicals and ex-Liberals. So the Forza Italia group in Parliament was actually inferior in numbers (101 deputies) to that of the League (118). Bossi drove a hard bargain in pre-electoral negotiations, obtaining 70 percent of the common candidatures in the north of Italy, where the coalition scored an overwhelming success. At the time this seemed a fair reflection of the relative strengths of the two parties, but as it turned out Forza Italia outpolled the League even in Lombardy. In the Senate, the right failed to win a clear majority (156 seats out of 315), partly because the age group between eighteen and twenty-five is excluded from voting.

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