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The Berlusconi Show

Traditionally on losing an election, a politician calls to congratulate the winner and urges voters to put their differences aside and come together for the good of the country. But Silvio Berlusconi is anything but a traditional politician. Instead, after his narrow defeat by the center-left candidate, Romano Prodi, Berlusconi made charges of fraud (even though his own government had overseen the voting), demanded a recount (which quickly confirmed the original result), and demanded that he be included in any new government in order to avoid ‘civil war.’

Prodi will probably have enough seats to put together a parliamentary majority. But a weak government, presiding over a sharply divided country, will likely make it possible for Berlusconi to block legislation. Or Prodi’s government could be short-lived, and there could be new elections in the not-too-distant future.

A close outcome was not only predictable but actually planned by Berlusconi during his government’s twilight as a way of lessening the impact of possible defeat. A few months before the election, Berlusconi studied polls that showed the center-left winning a substantial majority in parliament with the country’s winner-take-all electoral system. He decided to change the election system and return to the proportional representation that the Italian electorate had strongly rejected in a popular referendum in 1993. The old proportional system was thought to have encouraged a plethora of small parties, unstable government majorities, short-lived revolving-door governments, and ceaseless horse-trading among coalition partners, all of which fostered corruption and lack of clear policies in the post– World War II period.

Berlusconi came to power for the first time in 1994 thanks to the system of winner-take-all, and he declared at once that the majoritarian system was his “religion.” He lost his religion when studies showed his coalition would do better in 2006 with the proportional system. He and his center-right allies calculated that even if the parties of the center-left won, the proportional system would fragment their vote and leave them with a contentious, unstable coalition that would need the center-right’s help in order to govern. In a moment of candor, Berlusconi’s minister for reform, Roberto Calderoli, admitted, “The election law? I wrote it, but it’s a porcata,” a vulgar term that roughly means “a piece of pig shit.” Clearly it was intended to make the country ungovernable for Prodi and his leftist coalition.

Ironically, however, Prodi owes his thin majority to two changes in the electoral law that the Berlusconi government pushed for. The new proportional system includes a “reward” of about sixty extra seats for the majority party in the lower house of parliament. And although the center-left actually lost the popular vote in the Senate, it won two decisive extra seats there because of a new law allowing Italians living overseas to elect their own members of parliament. Berlusconi gambled that overseas voters would give him a majority; they voted three to two against him.

Although a defeat, the election results are a considerable achievement from Berlusconi’s point of view. Rather than being swept from the scene in a landslide as many expected months ago, he remains the head of Forza Italia, Italy’s largest political party, and an arbiter of the country’s future. A few months before the election, most polls showed him behind by eight to ten points and even the day of the vote exit polls gave the center-left a comfortable margin of victory of 4 to 5 percent. Despite its uninspired campaign, the center-left appeared to have a seemingly insurmountable advantage: extremely widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of the Berlusconi government. The latest economic results, which came out as the campaign kicked off, confirmed that Italy had zero growth in 2005, the fifth straight year of virtual economic stagnation. During the last five years, the Italian economy grew by only 3.2 percent, the lowest of all countries in the European Union and under half the average for the rest of Europe (7.1 percent). Italy’s standard of living fell by 7 percent between 2001 and 2006. Productivity fell by more than 10 percent.

Strictly speaking, Berlusconi should not even have been a candidate for prime minister. During the 2001 election campaign, while signing his so-called “Contract with the Italians” on national TV, Berlusconi made five specific promises to Italian voters, saying that if he failed to maintain at least four of them, he would not run for office again. Government statistics show that Berlusconi honored only one of those promises—he raised minimum old-age pensions to one million lire, about $600 a month. He succeeded to only a small degree in two others, and failed entirely in the remaining two. Crime has gone up; taxes have barely budged; he has created an estimated 600,000 jobs instead of 1.5 million; and he has begun a small number of the public works he promised to create. The tame journalists chosen to moderate Italy’s two presidential debates were too polite to mention “the contract.” Prodi himself, who seemed generally unable to mount a strong attack, failed to make an issue of the contract. But the perception that Berlusconi failed to deliver on his promises was nonetheless deeply rooted, polls showed. In foreign policy, Berlusconi committed troops to the invasion of Iraq, a move that was unpopular from the beginning with about 70 percent of the Italian people—as his reelection campaign drew near, he began to say he disagreed with it himself.

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How then was Berlusconi able to claw his way back into the race, winning 49.7 percent of the popular vote—just 24,000 votes fewer than the center-left’s 49.8 percent?

Officially, the election campaign began with the dissolution of parliament on February 10, but it really commenced a month earlier, with a huge media blitz by Berlusconi. On one typical night, he was on television virtually all evening, moving from one network’s talk show straight to an entertainment program where he could boast about his AC Milan soccer team. Berlusconi spent much of the time talking about subjects other than politics, quite aware that the undecided voters he wanted to reach say they dislike politics. To them, he offered himself as the amiable family man, bringing out his ninety-five-year-old mother, and chatting about soccer, gardening, and his family’s sleeping habits. “One night I sleep with Veronica, another with our two daughters, the third with [our son] Luigi who tangles up his legs with mine.”

He also orchestrated an extraordinarily vicious press campaign against his adversaries. In early January, the Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, published a series of stories alleging large-scale corruption among the leaders of the center-left. The paper printed the wiretapped phone conversations of Piero Fassino, president of the Left Democrats, who was speaking to Giovanni Consorte, the head of an insurance company made up of left-wing cooperatives, about a takeover for a bank. “So, do we own the bank?” Fassino asked Consorte. There was no evidence of wrongdoing on Fassino’s part or of any money changing hands—only that he was taking sides in a bank takeover. In fact, so had Berlusconi in the same takeover. In one wiretap, moreover, a financial strategist reports on a meeting with Berlusconi, where they discussed the attempted takeover of theRizzoli–Corriere della Sera group, owner of the country’s largest newspaper and second-largest book and magazine publishing group, one of the few large media groups that has eluded Berlusconi’s control. “I just spoke to the prime minister who is moved by what we are doing. I told him we were pressing ahead with the RCS[Rizzoli–Corriere della Sera] takeover and that he must give us a hand.”

These conversations did not receive much attention from the Italian news media. That Berlusconi was acting improperly was not news, while unsavory behavior on the left allowed Berlusconi to insist that the opposition was no better than he was—worse, in fact, because they were hypocrites who claimed moral superiority while playing the same corrupt games.

Few pointed out that these wiretaps were in direct violation of a law that Berlusconi had fought for and passed. Embarrassed again and again by revelations of wrongdoing in his company and government, Berlusconi had passed a law strictly forbidding the wiretapping and the publication of any wiretaps of members of parliament. Police are not allowed to wiretap a member of parliament even if, by chance, a dangerous criminal who was under surveillance happened to telephone a politician while committing a crime. Numerous recordings of Mafia members chatting with politicians have been thrown out of court. According to the new law such wiretaps were not even allowed to be transcribed and placed into the public record. The conversations between Fassino and Consorte were at first available only in audio form on a few CD-ROMs and were likely published in Berlusconi’s newspaper with the help of someone in the government—a gross abuse of power that Berlusconi himself had passed severe legislation to prevent. Such a leak on the eve of an election, in a country with a genuinely free press, might have become a major story and campaign issue. It got little attention.

Berlusconi’s appearances on TV were almost always in situations where he didn’t have to answer questions; the people conducting interviews were his own employees. In one case, for a program on one of his own networks, Berlusconi arrived with his own director, who arranged the set and worked out the questions with the show’s nominal host. During the first three weeks of January, Berlusconi appeared on television for five hours and twenty-three minutes, while Prodi was present for only twenty-one minutes, a 16:1 advantage in airtime for Berlusconi, who used this advantage to set the terms of the debate for the campaign.

After the parliament was dissolved and the election campaign officially began in February, Berlusconi’s tactics appeared to change. In theory, all of the national television networks—both the public stations and Berlusconi’s networks—were supposed to comply with “equal time” rules guaranteeing equal access to the principal candidates. Berlusconi’s claims became more extravagant than ever. Responding to criticisms of the modest accomplishments of his government, he said, “only Napoleon did more.” At another point, he said, “Churchill freed us from the Nazis, Berlusconi is freeing us from the Communists.” Finally at the end, he referred to himself as “the Jesus Christ of politics,” for the patience and forbearance he displayed toward his enemies. Before an audience of devout Catholics, he vowed to abstain from sex until after the election.

These wild comments were much lampooned in the foreign press as further signs of Berlusconi’s buffoonery. But the press misunderstood Berlusconi’s strategy. In Berlusconi’s world of celebrity politics there is no such thing as bad publicity—just getting attention enlarges one’s audience and raises ratings. And Berlusconi’s constant appearances in January and February helped him slash his center-left opponent’s lead from 8 percent to about 3 percent. If you were to look back over the front pages of the major opposition newspaper, La Repubblica, the word that appeared most often in its banner headlines between January and April was overwhelmingly “BERLUSCONI.”

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