Roving thoughts and provocations

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Berlusconi’s New Rival?

Silvio Berlusconi
Alessandra Tarantino/AP Images
Silvio Berlusconi during a talk show recording, with a picture of Gianfranco Fini, president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, in the background, Rome, September 15, 2009

The Italians have a one-syllable word, an interjection, that means “I don’t know”: “Boh.” And “Boh” is probably the only credible commentary anyone can make right now about the country’s political situation. At the end of March, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà or “Freedom People” party swept regional elections nationwide, gaining control of four new regions (roughly equivalent to states in the US), including Campania (Naples), Lazio (Rome), and Piedmont (Turin), while holding on to Lombardy (Milan) and the Veneto. The opposition’s Democratic Party, forever split into squabbling groups, once again missed an opportunity (indeed there is no opportunity so far that they have not missed). Most of the contests were close, and turnout was unusually low by Italian standards.

For his part, Berlusconi credited the center-right victory to Freedom People’s status as “the party of love.” For people over forty, the phrase brought back memories: in 1991, the pornographic actress and parliamentarian (and former muse of Jeff Koons) Cicciolina founded a real rather than a metaphorical Party of Love (Partito dell’Amore) together with her manager Riccardo Schicchi, to promote a somewhat different political platform than the one endorsed by Berlusconi’s Freedom People of 2010. The Party of Love garnered 12,393 votes in the 1992 parliamentary elections, but died prematurely when its chief candidate, Moana Pozzi (another porn star in Schicchi’s stable), succumbed to liver cancer in 1994 at the age of 33. Was Berlusconi’s description of his party as the “party of love” a deliberate echo, a coincidence, or the fruit of subliminal suggestion related to his recent dalliances? Boh.

On April 22, the Freedom People gathered to parcel out their newly won spoils in the Roman theatre known as the Auditorium della Conciliazione—the “Auditorium of Accord,” but what happened next was anything but a peaceable love-fest. Berlusconi owed his party’s victory to an increasingly close alliance with the separatist Northern League. While its members—a rough-hewn, rough-spoken lot—waited eagerly for their reward, Berlusconi prepared to glory in his triumph by driving home the series of “reforms” he has called for since his own election as Prime Minister, among them decentralizing the national budget, restricting the duties of magistrates, and protecting the nation’s highest officeholders from prosecution during their terms of office. But both he and the Northern League underestimated the other important element in their cobbled-together center-right coalition: Gianfranco Fini, a skilled parliamentarian who represents the former right-wing National Alliance party.

Fini’s political career has taken him in forty years from the far-right ranks of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) during Italy’s bloody “Years of Lead” to an anti-Fascist, center-right position distinctive for its rigorous call for a separation between Church and state (this in a country where the dominant party for decades was called Christian Democracy). Outspoken in his admiration for Mussolini as late as 1992, by 1995 Fini had publicly repudiated Fascism. For the past sixteen years, he, Berlusconi, and the Northern League’s leader, Umberto Bossi, have been forced into an uneasy ménage à trois to maintain a set of center-right coalitions, but their personalities, interests, and political goals are radically different. At present, the most significant fault line is this: Berlusconi and Bossi are populists; Fini has turned into a statesman. Furthermore, as President of Italy’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, he now holds a rank equivalent to that of the U.S. Speaker of the House, that is, the third highest office in the land. And he was having none of the Northern League’s new ascendancy.

At the Auditorium of Accord, the deep rifts all came out into the open. In his turn at the podium, Fini challenged Berlusconi on several of the Prime Minister’s sorest points: his growing dependency on the Northern League (“in the North, we’ve turned into a photocopy of them”); his hypersensitivity to criticism (“Having opinions that differ from those of the party president…means exercising a right and a duty. Can we really dismiss differing analyses as if they were simply matters of personality? Or betrayals?”); his control of the media (“I’ve been the object myself of attacks from journalists well-paid by close relatives of the prime minister” [Berlusconi’s brother Paolo owns the paper Il Giornale]). Perhaps the unkindest cut of all, he noted that many of the Freedom People’s reforms benefit their Prime Minister more than anyone else: “We need to reform our system of justice, but we don’t need to give the impression that this serves to guarantee bigger loopholes of impunity. And sometimes that impression exists … this is the message that’s been given.”

When Berlusconi, later taking the same podium, shouted in a fury, “If you want to play politics, leave your office!”, Fini talked right back to him from the floor: “Or you’ll drive me out?” It was the first open challenge that the Prime Minister has received in a long, long time, and it caught him unprepared.

To a certain extent, Fini was probably unprepared, too—at least for fireworks on the scale he precipitated. It is unlikely that he wanted to break so definitely with Berlusconi at just this moment; each still needs the other in order to win any national election. Allies of convenience, they have almost always had a tempestuous relationship, and Fini has said before that the difference in their ages (fifty-eight to Berlusconi’s seventy-three) means that he only needs to wait. In the Auditorium of Accord, however, he decided to wait no longer, with consequences that no one can quite predict. He gave the impression that what mattered, though, was no longer convenience, but principle.

The Freedom People party itself passed an immediate resolution supporting Berlusconi, with only a dozen delegates daring to back his challenger. But the damage to the Prime Minister’s prestige will be hard to repair. Intimidation only works if it instills fear; otherwise it looks like bluster. Fini is fearless. Since that April confrontation, Berlusconi has been unable to pull his coalition together, while Fini has shown increasing signs of political independence. In early May, he formally launched a new movement called Generation Italy, that aims to involve younger people in national politics—in evident contrast to the Northern League’s regional, separatist emphasis, and to the aging Berlusconi’s cult of personality.

In the meantime, troubles seem to be gathering around Berlusconi like spring thunderclouds: his Minister of Economic Development, Claudio Scajola, has just resigned because of corruption charges (typically, Berlusconi is covering this office himself until a successor can be chosen), and the scandal, which involves shady real estate deals, is spreading quickly to other parts of the government and perhaps the Vatican: the May 13 Corriere della Sera quotes Berlusconi as saying “This is only the beginning” as if he somehow intends to stand back from the mess.

The current European economic crisis leaves Italy increasingly vulnerable as well; and the mighty are falling to the forces of nature. Even the haughty Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari, was forced by an airplane-grounding volcanic cloud to take a normal Italian train, which arrived—horror of horrors—an hour late. There is an Italian interjection for this occasion too: “Toh!” “Take that!”

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