Making Way for Berlusconi

The recent Italian elections were not just a clear triumph for the center-right coalition of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. They were also a major defeat for the center-left parties that have governed the country since their victory in 1996.

In one sense, their defeat bears some resemblance to Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush last November: based on the economic situation alone, the center-left should have had strong advantages. The Italian economy is growing at 2.9 percent a year and the country added more than a million jobs during the last five years—accomplishing what Berlusconi promised but failed to do when he was elected in 1994. (He lasted in office for only seven months, but the country lost about 300,000 jobs during that period.) Inflation has dropped to 3 percent. Interest rates have been cut nearly in half and the stock market has nearly doubled in value. Against the predictions of many, Italy met the economic criteria of the Maastricht Treaty for full integration into the European Union.

What, then, went wrong? The answer, to some on the left, is the overwhelming power of Berlusconi’s media and economic empire. But this is an insufficient part of the explanation. It is true that Berlusconi’s use of television and money is unprecedented in the history of modern democracy. He combines telegenic charm with a brilliant sense of political theater, managing to give the impression that he is both a man of the people and a political messiah. When he entered politics in 1994, he simultaneously addressed the nation on all three of his national networks as if he were already president, and he has made shameless use of them ever since. His three stations have a 42 percent share of the TV audience, and with Italy’s three state networks under his control, he will soon have power over 90 percent of the country’s television transmissions.

Berlusconi does not hesitate to make complaints to the anchormen of his news networks or issue orders about the nightly news; his stations gave him four times more airtime than they did the center-left candidate, Francesco Rutelli. The state broadcasting company, RAI, was comparatively neutral and gave the two roughly equal time. Still, Berlusconi was able to use one of his favorite state programs to stage the signing of his “contract with the Italian people”—a list of promises—on national TV. The program showed Berlusconi sitting at a cherrywood desk as if the state TV studio were his office (see photo on this page). No one asked him any difficult questions.

But Berlusconi had virtually all of the same advantages in 1996, when the center-left managed to win. Why did the governing parties squander their favorable position this time? One reason is that they were unwilling to address the issues of Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest and his dominance of television and other mass media, of which they now justly complain. When Romano Prodi became prime minister …

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