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With Berlusconi in the Soup

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Sandro Pace/AP Images
Silvio Berlusconi, front left, demanding on state television that his wife, Veronica Lario, publicly apologize to him after she announced that she was filing for divorce, May 5, 2009. Lario and Berlusconi are pictured in the background; the writing at the top of the screen says, ‘And Veronica asks for a divorce.’

It is a measure of the ineptitude—or is it a death wish?—of Italy’s major opposition party, the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), that it has spent the entire season of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s discontent wrangling over the election of its own party secretary—only to be caught, on the eve of the October 25 vote (its winner was Pier Luigi Bersani, a sensible former minister in several left-wing administrations), by a veritable Vesuvius of erupting bimbos. The day before, Piero Marrazzo, the Democratic governor of the region of Lazio (approximately equivalent to a state in the US, and the region that contains Rome), confessed to having been blackmailed by a gang of four corrupt carabinieri who had tracked his wild times with transgendered Brazilian prostitutes (filming an encounter with a certain “Natalie”). His sexual tastes were of no juridical importance, but the same could not be said about his use of an official car for these appointments, or his payment of outrageous sums of money (whose?) for ministrations laced with cocaine and silicone curves. He resigned on October 27.

Ironically, Marrazzo, a former television host (which may have helped him meet his pneumatic Brazilian friends), now finds that his most fervent defenders come from the ranks of Berlu- sconi’s majority party, the Popolo della Libertà (Freedom People), which is anxious to protect its own paladin from the consequences of his even more publicized amorous excesses. Members of Freedom People of late have been outspokenly solicitous of other people’s “privacy”—that is, their appetite for kinky sex.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this never-ending tale of Homo politicus and the Seven Deadly Sins is the reaction of the women involved, which bears no resemblance to the grim stoicism of their American counterparts, the betrayed wives who stand with dismal regularity hand in hand with their lawfully wedded philanderers while looking as visibly agonized as Saint Sebastian shot full of arrows. Veronica Lario, Berlusconi’s wife, responded to her husband’s shenanigans by announcing her filing for divorce in the pages of the opposition newspaper La Repubblica; for his part, the father-in-law of former Governor Marrazzo has been enthusiastically denouncing his son-in-law, not without reason, as a jerk. In any event, wherever Italy goes these days, the Democratic Party in its present form is unlikely to be leading the way.

There is no question, however, that Italy is moving into a new situation. Ever since Veronica Lario gave up on her marriage, Berlusconi has had an increasingly hard time finding his bearings nationally, internationally, and personally (of course, the real situation may well be the other way around: the astute Signora Lario may have recognized that her husband was losing self-control and addressed him by the only means he understands—the press). Berlusconi, for his part, is back in the soup of his corruption scandals since a decision by the Italian Supreme Court left him open again to prosecution while in office, and he has let it slip that he no longer enjoys his job. That disillusionment shows; his public persona has taken on a sharp edge that was never this evident before, and he has been seeking comfort too often in the company of dictators like Vladimir Putin and Muammar Qaddafi. These adventures have their practical basis; Italian industry runs on Libyan oil and Russian gas, and just like Renaissance princes, these men are usually cutting deals in the midst of their extravagant festivities.

Tellingly, too, the prime minister’s potential successors are measuring their reach: the list includes Gianfranco Fini, current president of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Italian parliament), far and away the most capable politician in circulation, and, somewhat surprisingly, Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s minister of finance, who has apparently come to envision himself as the possible prime minister of a “technical government”like those headed in the 1990s by the left-wing Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (who went on to be a much-loved president of Italy) and Giuliano Amato.

Tremonti has power, certainly; he holds the national purse strings. Fini, in turn, benefits from a remarkable political instinct that has led him to move from his original power base, the neo-Fascist (and now long-defunct) Italian Social Movement (MSI), to his present position as an increasingly popular moderate.

The left can match Tremonti’s economic expertise with Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, who served as minister of finance under the last government of Romano Prodi; but there is no one capable of matching Fini’s finesse, least of all Walter Veltroni, the founder and first secretary of the Democratic Party (and former mayor of Rome), who was sidelined since spring when a rapid-fire series of political blunders stripped the would-be emperor of his new clothes. (The election of Bersani to the position of party secretary is another slap to Veltroni, who preferred a different candidate, a former Christian Democrat.)

To their misfortune, moreover, the Democrats have shown themselves fully as susceptible to the siren songs of lust and greed as Berlusconi’s Freedom People, especially in southern Italy, where the same procurer seems to have been furnishing women to Berlusconi and to Democratic higher-ups in the regions of Apulia and of Campania, whose president, Antonio Bassolino, is a former Neapolitan mayor, Democrat, and erstwhile shining hope of Naples.

Bassolino made the same unforgivable mistake in Naples as Veltroni did in Rome—trying to hold national office and function as mayor at the same time. Both have paid dearly for their hubris, though not as dearly as the citizens they failed to serve. In the meantime, Naples and Campania continue to suffer in the criminal grip of the Camorra, unforgettably exposed by Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorra and Matteo Garrone’s film of the same name.

The world economic crisis has shortened Italians’ patience with corruption in general, but especially with a political class whose privileges by definition include exemption from Italy’s high taxes. Politicians, Democrats and Freedom People alike, are more likely than not to be identified as members of a single category, damningly defined in 2007 by writers Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo as “the Caste,”Brahmins who live above the law, oblivious to the real feelings of the people around them.

These days, neither Democrats nor Freedom People look any better than their predecessors; the only question, as the respected commentator Eugenio Scalfari wrote in La Repubblica recently, is whether they will be replaced by a democracy or an authoritarian state. Berlusconi may dream of supreme authority, but it is unlikely now that he can really take it in hand. He has a great deal of control over Italy, but that control is threatened by forces outside Italy’s party system.

For there are two other players to be reckoned with in the present Italian drama. One is Pope Benedict XVI, who knows that Berlusconi is more likely than any of his successors to drive through legislation that puts sharp restrictions on living wills—what in Italy is called a “biological testament.”Recently, the Church has strenuously opposed any interruption of artificial life support for patients who included Piergiorgio Welby, an articulate man in the final stages of muscular dystrophy, and Eluana Englaro, a young woman who spent seventeen years in an irreversible coma. On several other issues, as well, ranging from abortion to religious instruction in public schools, the Italian Council of Bishops has tried to exercise increased authority in the nation’s political life.

The Council of Bishops has reproved Berlusconi for irresponsible behavior—meaning his parties with underage girls and professional escorts—but this prime minister, with substantial control over both houses of parliament, remains useful for the current Church agendas in spite of his personal foibles. Present usefulness, however, is nothing like carte blanche. Berlusconi is on probation with Pope Benedict, who has always been, and remains, a born tactician—as the Church of England discovered in late October when he suddenly announced new procedures for admitting Anglicans into the Catholic fold (much to the surprise of the Archbishop of Canterbury).

The other player is Rupert Murdoch. Berlusconi, though he was—and still is—a powerful media tycoon, is not unique in that category, or in the scope of his ambitions. Murdoch, who shares Berlusconi’s varieties of cunning, if not his cruise-ship charm, and who has not complicated his life by running for political office, is gradually assembling a share of Italy’s media market, although Berlusconi has tried with a certain degree of success to keep him out. But Murdoch is not about to give up the struggle now, not when tabloid journalists have been offered such a banquet of Italian gossip to feast upon, much of it, until recently, at the prime minister’s expense.

Nor can Berlusconi trust nature, to judge by the recent mudslides in Sicily, not when Italy stands at the junction of two tectonic plates, and at a time when Italians worry that global warming may be responsible for strange weather and violent, tropical-style storms (to say nothing of the threat that rising seas pose to Venice). To be sure, nature played into his hands with the April earthquake in L’Aquila, a beautiful town in Abruzzo, a region of hardy, industrious mountain people where the prime minister could touch down easily by helicopter from Rome to offer personal comfort—and indeed accessibility has been one of Berlusconi’s strongest assets throughout his political career.

The mudslides of October happened on precipitous volcanic hillsides developed against every law of gravity by unscrupulous builders, and in a region where the population, from long negative experience, is suspicious of any government. In Sicily, Berlusconi was received by victims of the mudslides as if he were part of the problem; as indeed he has been, by repeatedly favoring legislation that has dropped sanctions against just the kinds of illegal construction that slid down the hills around Messina—itself the site of one of the world’s most devastating earthquakes, which may have killed as many as two hundred thousand people in 1908. Surely the houses that came down in the recent mudslides would do no better against seismic shock.

It was a Sicilian, after all, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who distilled the paradox of modern Italy: “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change!” (“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi!“) In the land of Julius Caesar—a brilliant politician who nonetheless mismeasured, fatally, the temper of the Roman Senate—it is hard to fathom why, as political animals, we can never seem to ingest the most basic laws of cause and effect. For in the end, Piero Marrazzo’s sad, sordid story redounds as much against Silvio Berlusconi and every other member of the Caste as it does in the prime minister’s favor. In any event, among Italian politicians, the one who best rewards watching these days is Gianfranco Fini, whose moves, wherever they take him, are premeditated and intelligent.

Besides, Berlusconi is no longer the politician who most inspires Italians of every political stripe, despite what his polls continue to tell him. That politician exists, but his name is Barack Obama, a man whose health plan poses no threat in a country long used to socialized medicine, and whose message of change resonates in this tired, cynical country with at least as much force as it has in the United States.

—November 4, 2009

Postscript—November 16, 2009: In the last two weeks, Berlusconi has made yet another attempt to evade his impending trials by encouraging, through his spooky, clever lawyer, Niccolò Ghedini (who is also a member of Parliament), a “disegno di legge” (a proposed law) that would nullify any legal processes that have gone on for more than a certain number of years, which would erase, along with Berlusconi’s charges of corruption, some long-standing class action suits (notably one for asbestos pollution), and criminal trials that involve Italy’s various Mafias. The uproar has been immediate—with the Democratic Party finally making some kind of concerted response—and the Freedom People have already backpedaled, although not entirely. Veronica Lario proceeds with her divorce.

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