Silvio Berlusconi has turned Italian politics inside out like a rubber glove. The old Italian politics of the First Republic, established in 1946, were based on the assumption that what was publicly visible, or audible, had no intrinsic significance. What mattered was what lay behind the speaker’s words. Hence the peculiarly Italian discipline of dietrologia, or the science of “what’s behind it all.” The greatest master of the political techniques of oblique suggestion and implication was Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat who dominated Italian politics for some thirty years; in a short, enigmatic phrase he could conjure up vast visions of power and secrecy, like a Piranesi dungeon. On a lower plane, the dense obscurity of more ordinary political discourse conveyed the correct impression that politics was a game for initiates.
In the meantime, however, Italians themselves became ever more concerned with appearances—a strong national trait in any event. Now we have in Berlusconi a prime minister with “the sun in his pocket,” 1 a salesman of dreams and miracles. With the crumbling of the old political class under the blows of Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”), and the arrest and prosecution of more than a thousand politicians and businessmen for corruption, government has become, at least temporarily, more open. But the reign of illusions has replaced the reign of secrecy. The purgatory of tangentopoli—bribe city—has been replaced by an artificial paradise.
The left-wing coalition—the ex-Communists of the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) and their allies—was widely expected to win the March elections, but they underrated the threat presented by Silvio Berlusconi. To many commentators last January, the left’s victory seemed certain because the various parties of the right were unable to form a coalition. The federalism of Umberto Bossi’s Northern League was diametrically opposed to the nationalism of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), led by Gianfranco Fini. At the congress of the Northern League in February, Bossi promised his supporters, “With the Fascists, never!” Berlusconi solved this problem through a brilliant sleight of hand. Since his potential allies flatly refused to join a single electoral coalition, he formed separate alliances with each, which he called “poles,” the Polo delle Libertà with the League and the Polo del Buongoverno with Alleanza Nazionale, the right-wing front whose core of support was the MSI. This was a workable solution because the MSI’s strength was concentrated in Rome and the surrounding Lazio region, and in the South, where the League vote was negligible.
Berlusconi was too easily dismissed when he announced in January that he would organize a new national party, Forza Italia. His vast holdings in real estate, department stores, publishing, and television stations had been built up with the help of the old regime. In particular, many commentators assumed that his involvement with the corrupt Socialist leader Bettino Craxi would be enough to discredit him. Several leading members of Berlusconi’s entourage were…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.