Berlusconi: Why He Can Still Cause Havoc

Francesco Malavolta/NurPhoto/eyevine/Redux
Silvio Berlusconi (right) and his deputy, Angelino Alfano, March 23, 2013

On August 1, the Italian Supreme Court pronounced Silvio Berlusconi definitively and unappealably guilty of tax fraud, sentencing him to four years in prison, immediately commuted to one year’s house arrest thanks to various provisions aimed at easing overcrowding in the country’s jails. Members of the Senate, however, cannot be arrested, and as the painfully slow process to remove the four-time former prime minister and leader of one of the two main parties in the present right-left coalition from his Senate seat began, Berlusconi put a gun to the prime minister’s head: find a way to keep me out of jail or I will withdraw my support and bring down the government.

Since Italy has been struggling to come out of a long and deep recession that has put more than 40 percent of young people out of work and caused manufacturing to decline by 26 percent since 2007, since no other coalition seems possible in the present Parliament, and since a number of urgent economic measures aimed at meeting EU requirements for countries using the euro were in the pipeline, this was evidently a threat to send the whole country to the dogs.

The atmosphere that ensued through August and September was extraordinary. Berlusconi’s constant ultimatums, his almost daily threats to withdraw from the coalition—if the government did not abolish a property tax, if it did not prevent a scheduled increase in sales tax, indeed if it diluted any of his extravagant electoral pledges—his preparation of signed resignations from all his party’s ninety-one senators to be presented the day he lost his place in the Senate, his repeated intention of forcing a snap election that he believed he could win, hence strengthening his position to bargain his freedom against Italy’s destiny, in short his stubborn refusal to accept that he is not beyond the rule of law—all these remarkable antics, unthinkable, one would have supposed, in a Western democracy, were not met with outrage in the media.

On the contrary, serious newspapers published articles reflecting on the convenience or otherwise of an act of clemency by President Giorgio Napolitano, on the bad form of the left-wing Democratic Party in being so hard on a coalition partner as to press for his removal from the Senate, on the moral superiority of compromise over pious rectitude, and so on. Men of the stature of Mario Monti, the recent prime minister, admired internationally and detested at home, spoke of Berlusconi’s being “a special case,” with the implication that a special solution might be required.

It was rare, outside declaredly left-wing newspapers preaching to their faithful, to find an article, let alone a radio or TV news bulletin, that actually spoke of the crime for which Berlusconi has been convicted: the evasion of seven million euros in taxes and the creation of a slush fund of some 280 million euros. It was rare to find anyone connecting that slush fund with the trial recently opened against Berlusconi for buying the vote of a parliamentary deputy, or an older trial that concluded that a judge had been corrupted, but failed to prove that Berlusconi was directly responsible. It was rare to hear anyone observing that even were he somehow to be granted clemency for this crime, further trials are pending, in particular an appeal against his conviction for abetting underage prostitution, a crime for which he has been provisionally sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment; and it was almost unheard of for anyone to suggest that regardless of moral concern or the desire to uphold the rule of law, Berlusconi simply cannot be of any use to his country politically, so sullied is his international image and so desperate Italy’s need to convince foreign investors that the country is serious and stable.

In compensation for these omissions we got generous columns on the aging leader’s personal anguish, his sense of betrayal, his insomnia, and plenty of footage of his affectionate new girlfriend and her small white dog Dudù, the latter frequently shown in Berlusconi’s avuncular arms. In short, soap opera substituted for sober analysis.

Meanwhile representatives of the stricken leader’s Freedom Party rallied around him with that shrillness, unanimity, and venom typical of those living in collective denial. To watch news bulletins on Berlusconi’s three national TV channels (in all there are only four private channels operating at the national level) was to be told that the judicial removal of an elected leader was the death of democracy and had never happened before in any Western country, since it amounted to a disenfranchising of a large proportion of the electorate. Even on the three public channels, where over his years as prime minister Berlusconi was able to appoint many sympathizers, such claims were often made and allowed to go unchallenged.

When Berlusconi’s lawyers questioned the constitutionality of the new procedure for removing convicted criminals from the Senate, a procedure Berlusconi himself supported and voted for only a year ago, long and apparently learned articles appeared discussing the finer points of law. Could this procedure be applied in cases where the crimes for which the senator was convicted occurred before the introduction of the rule? No mention was made of the obvious spirit of the law, no discussion of the appropriateness or otherwise of keeping a convicted man in a house of representatives.

In short, never has it been clearer that the problem in Italy is not Berlusconi but the entire milieu and malaise of Italian society itself in which he moves and thrives. There is an evident fear on the part of many otherwise authoritative journalists to say what needs to be said. There is also the widespread belief that in the end it would be naive to imagine that great men have to obey the same rules as lesser men (an idea, incidentally, that greatly pleased Cosimo de’ Medici six hundred years ago). There is the manifest preference of large numbers of the electorate for a man whose extravagant wheeling and dealing makes their own small fiscal misdemeanors seem trifling (Italy has the highest levels of tax evasion in Europe).

And beneath all this, there is the deeply ingrained conviction that the right–left divide that flared into civil war in the 1940s still conditions all parts of Italian public life, such that it becomes understandable that a man of the right like Berlusconi refuses to accept the judicial authority of men he considers to be on the left, Communists no less, while he interprets all judicial procedures against him as the merest political attacks, indications in fact of the weakness of his opponents, who, despairing of seeing him off through the ballot box, have had to resort to judicial harassment.

And never has it been clearer than it was this summer that the only remaining resistance to the complete domination of Berlusconi, his undeniable charisma, his TV channels, his publishing and advertising empire, his infinitely ramifying business interests, is not any political opposition and certainly not a shared civil sense of propriety, but solely and uniquely the judiciary, which of course Berlusconi frequently attempted to reform in his favor when he was in government.

The 2012 so-called Severino Law that lays down the rules for removing a convicted criminal from the Senate calls for “immediate” action. In the event, after furious resistance and elaborate stonewalling from Berlusconi’s Freedom Party, the preliminary committee set up to clear the way for a Senate vote on his removal from Parliament finally announced that it would make this decision on October 4, more than two months after the conviction. On Saturday September 28, in an apparently desperate attempt to stymie proceedings, Berlusconi moved to bring the government down, withdrawing his ministers from the coalition and calling for new elections. His strategy over recent years has always been to set the people against the law.

It would be cheering to imagine that what happened over the following week marks a watershed in Italian public life. Faced with the prospect of chaos on the financial markets and consequent strictures from the European Central Bank, many fence-sitters finally found the courage to come down against Berlusconi. Albeit apologetically and politely conceding that the poor man must be overwrought, people with authority finally began to say that things had gone too far.

More importantly, after twenty years of his complete domination of the political party that he runs and finances more as a private company than a democratic organization—the Freedom Party has no proper congress or mechanism for choosing a leader—a serious rebellion developed. Despite having obediently resigned as interior minister, Berlusconi’s own chosen deputy, Angelino Alfano, announced that he and a group of rebels would support the government in a confidence vote in the Senate, thus ensuring its survival. It was an act of courage that nobody expected.

When an elderly autocrat is beaten and humiliated in his own backyard, one assumes his number is up; a younger successor takes over the party machine and becomes the new focus of loyalty. When the same veteran leader is about to begin a year’s detention, when he has lost the right to hold public office for years to come, when he very likely will soon be facing further convictions, one would suppose that this really does settle the issue. But this is not necessarily the case with Berlusconi. He can still cause havoc and he still no doubt believes he can negotiate with the law. To understand why this is so is to appreciate the depth of Italy’s present predicament and the curious nature of public life here.

First of all there is little sign of the man’s popularity falling off. For perhaps 30 percent of the electorate, Berlusconi is indeed the victim of a left-wing plot, a hero, and by no means a man in disgrace. In part, of course, this is due to the constant propaganda of his media machine, his presentation of himself as a friend of the people who has roused the wrath of vested interests, but also to a deep and ancient Italian vocation for factionalism. Feelings of belonging and identity are far more readily and intensely invested in families, towns, regions, religious organizations, trade unions, professional associations, and political parties than in the nation-state, and issues of loyalty are far more binding than issues of morality. It is a state of mind that goes together with a tendency in the workplace to seek protection and promotion by attaching oneself to a dominant figure and his entourage, counting on connection far more than merit for the construction of a career.

Identity in this mind-set comes from one’s engagement in one faction in conflict or negotiation with another and always in a logic of winning and losing, be it one village against the next, or one university faculty against another. Final defeat, the notion of moving on, is simply not contemplated, which perhaps explains why Italy’s ruling class is the oldest in Europe, each successful man having scores of others who entirely depend on him and insist that he continue.

So, as Giacomo Leopardi observed in 1826, no Italian is ever wholeheartedly admired or condemned, but always has supporters or detractors even after death, since no Italian ever represents or is allowed to represent the nation as a whole. This is certainly true if one runs through the heroes and villains of modern Italian history from Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Cavour, through Mussolini to Craxi, Andreotti, and Berlusconi. Garibaldi still has his vociferous detractors, and Mussolini his strident supporters. So although, during his years in government, Berlusconi presided over the country’s drastic economic decline, his supporters remain convinced that this was merely because he was constantly tied down by a disloyal, left-wing judiciary.

Berlusconi has always presented himself as a winner, a fighter, and hence worthy of carrying on his supporters’ struggle. Astutely, he has always backed away from any showdown in which he actually loses. So in the last minutes of the confidence vote in Parliament on October 2, seeing how the wind was blowing, he startled everybody with a complete and grotesque volte-face, voting for, not against the government that he himself had sought to bring down. Immediately he began to build bridges with those who had rebelled against him. Immediately it became clear that Angelino Alfano and his rebels could not simply seize the mantle of leadership and take over the Freedom Party machine as would normally be the case, because it is entirely owned and largely financed by Berlusconi and because it relies heavily on the support of the media he runs. Extraordinarily, there has been no talk in Italy, except on the fringes of the extreme left, of introducing a law to end the blatantly undemocratic link between a political party and huge media ownership.

Any real break between Berlusconi and his party representatives in Parliament is further complicated by the bizarre electoral law introduced in 2005 by Berlusconi himself, which has been crucial in consolidating factionalism and encouraging corruption. Essentially, it splits off representatives from any responsibility to a local electorate. The party chooses lists of candidates at the regional level (Lombardy, Tuscany, etc.); the voter selects a list, not a person. According to the number of votes each party polls in the region a number of candidates are elected, those at the top of the list being selected first.

The party can thus guarantee election to the chosen faithful, while candidates owe all their loyalty to their leaders—indeed vie for top-of-the-list positions—and none to the people who voted for them. This largely explains the completeness, until very recently, of Berlusconi’s grip on his own party, and likewise the presence in Parliament and Senate of so many deputies who have very little experience of direct democratic politics. If Berlusconi disappears, they disappear with him.

The present prime minister, Enrico Letta, a deputy but not a leader of the Democratic Party, and the nephew of one of Berlusconi’s closest advisers, a man chosen by the octogenarian president more for his blandness and negotiating skills than authority, has promised to reform the electoral law, but after six months of government there is still no sign of a proposal; nor is it easy to see how a coalition made up of two parties so deeply suspicious of each other could ever reach agreement on such a major reform.

But the same goes for all the other major reforms the country desperately needs. Italy now has productivity levels lower than those of Greece and Spain, while its interminably slow legal system and notorious bureaucracy have reduced foreign investment to a trickle. The goals of its economy are all set by the EU, which increasingly seeks to dictate the policies for achieving them.

The sense that the government is simultaneously both a puppet and a puppet unable to carry out the commands it is given leads to greater and greater disillusionment. In the last two years the number of graduates leaving Italy has doubled. The high levels of unemployment encourage nepotism and factionalism as each group seeks to take care of its own, each needy person seeks a contact, a protector. Can you explain to me, I was recently asked at an academic conference, who protects such and such a person? The Italian mind is constantly smelling out the network of contacts behind the façade of meritocracy.

In early October five of the professors the government has called on to help prepare a program of constitutional reform were placed under investigation for allegedly manipulating the exam system by which university jobs are handed out. This is exactly the atmosphere in which figures like Berlusconi thrive, if only because they offer the protection and opportunity that a weak and divided government, plodding on only because there is no alternative, cannot.

Meanwhile there is much excited speculation about what “socially useful” occupation the man himself might be assigned if judges allow him this option (rather than straightforward house arrest) and how this might affect his popularity; the Senate remains divided over whether the final vote of the whole house to expel Berlusconi should be secret or open (no member has ever been expelled with a secret vote), with the result that the vote has again been delayed. The president has asked the government to consider further measures of clemency to relieve pressure on the still shamefully overcrowded jails, and the parties have immediately fallen to arguing over whether such clemency should include Berlusconi, who will anyway not be in jail. As one commentator in the newspaper La Repubblica remarked: despite his apparent defeat, it is impossible to talk about anything in Italy without the conversation leading back to Berlusconi.