Over every debate about Italian politics hovers the tyranny of the model. Italy is out of line. “The Funding of Political Parties and Control of the Media: Another Italian Anomaly” proclaims the title of one essay in an annual roundup of developments in the bel paese produced by the Istituto Cattaneo, a private political think tank in Bologna. “The End of Italy’s Referendum Anomaly?” inquires another. And yet another: “Italy’s December 1998 ‘Social Pact for Development and Employment’: Towards a New Political Economy for a ‘Normal Country’?”
The model, or normality, that Italy falls short of has a moral value. It is the morality of the modern Western democracy. So Italy’s being an anomaly is also a scandal: “In any other country of the European Union,” claims Elio Veltri in the introduction to L’odore dei soldi (“The Smell of Money”), a book written to show that Silvio Berlusconi is a crook, “the facts we describe would lead to a political earthquake. At the very least those responsible would be forced to quit the political scene. But in Italy this is not the case.”
Fortunately, it turns out that our Western model is not merely abstract or invented, but a state of affairs that humanity naturally tends toward. Italy is thus frequently seen as on the way to, or even on the brink of, normality (sometimes revealingly described by the authoritative historian of Italy Denis Mack Smith, for example, as “maturity”). The decision of the Italian Communist Party, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to change its name to the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) and later just Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left) could thus be interpreted as part of a process of “normalization.” The world need no longer feel, as it had since 1948, that one of Italy’s major political groupings was unelectable. On the other hand, Tangentopoli, the network of political corruption whose unmasking in the early Nineties destroyed the main parties of the center right, was a step back from normality: no sooner had the left become legitimate than the groupings traditionally opposed to them vanished. “Italy’s ‘exceptionalism,'” Anna Cento Bull comments in her book Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy, “which had been thrown out by political analysts, was thus fully reinstated by sociologists, historians and social anthropologists,” who put the blame on “a persisting culture of familism and particularism.”
In this Hegelian interpretation of the world, the scandal of any political anomaly is not, then, just its deviation from the proper model, but the extent to which it obstructs the beneficent historical process that will one day bring every country to have a parliamentary democracy with strong and morally admirable political groupings which alternate in honest government according to the sovereign will of the people. The most recent such obstacle in history’s path is Silvio Berlusconi. “Berlusconi,” wrote the respected journalist Indro Montanelli in Corriere della Sera, “is the millstone that paralyzes Italian politics.” “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy,” proclaimed The Economist’s cover headline shortly before the recent Italian elections. The article began: “In any self-respecting democracy it would be unthinkable…,” etc., etc.
After having lived for twenty years in Italy—twenty years in which we have interminably been told that the country is about to become normal—I believe that this way of approaching Italian politics, prevalent both in Italy and abroad and so seductive in its simplicity, is entirely unhelpful. It is thus reassuring to find that Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy, the only one of the books under review that involves interviews with voters in an attempt to understand the relationship between their choices and the lives they are leading, comes to the conclusion: “Reassessing the degree of change (but also of continuity) in Italy’s social identities and political cultures also means reassessing concepts of modernity and modernisation.” And again: “Solutions which may appear ideally suited to the Italian case…can easily backfire.” There is, in short, no ideal model toward which history tends. Or at least not in Italy.
L’odore dei soldi was tossed like a hand grenade into the Italian election campaign, when, on March 14, its author, Marco Travaglio, was interviewed on Satyricon, an “experimental” program produced by public TV and famous for having plumbed new depths of bad taste when a pretty model slipped her red panties from under her dress and offered them as a gift to the show’s host, Daniele Luttazzi. On another occasion guests were given chocolates in the form of turds. Two months before election day, Travaglio claimed to have discovered a lost, indeed suppressed, TV interview with the murdered anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino which spoke of relations between Berlusconi and the mafia. The burden of Travaglio’s book is that the Berlusconi fortune is based on dirty money and hence, quite apart from the problem of his ownership of three of seven national TV networks, he is unelectable. “You’re a courageous man in this shit of a country,” Luttazzi told the writer.
In the days following the program, L’odore dei soldi soared up the bestseller list. The Berlusconi camp claimed that this was further proof that the three public networks were biased toward the government and the left. There were calls by Berlusconi’s spokesmen to boycott the television tax that funds the public channels (which also carry advertising). The commission that assesses the fairness of TV programs during an election campaign agreed that the rules had been broken and suspended Satyricon for a week. Despite the furor, there was almost no debate about the content of the book.
It is not hard to understand why. L’odore dei soldi opens with an attempt to establish that Berlusconi is connected with the Sicilian mafia. In the early 1970s, while still a young man embarked on a career of real estate development in Milan, he gave employment, on the advice of his Sicilian assistant Marcello Dell’Utri, to a certain Vittorio Mangano, who was to be gardener at the Berlusconi villa and possibly a horse breeder (horse breeding is apparently mafia jargon for drug smuggling). Mangano was later fired when suspected of being responsible for a number of thefts and even of trying to organize the kidnapping of a rich guest. Later still, it turned out he was a member of a mafia family.
Travaglio floats the idea that it was through the mafia and the person of Mangano that Berlusconi acquired the financing to start his business. There are long quotations from various pentiti (those mafia members who have decided to collaborate with the magistrates) that support this interpretation. At the end of the opening section we are given the interview, just four pages, with Paolo Borsellino, an interview that, far from being suppressed, was published in the popular magazine Espresso in April 1994 (shortly after Berlusconi became directly involved in politics) and shown on public television. It is unremarkable. To the key question, “It has been said that he [Mangano] worked for Berlusconi,” Borsellino replies: “I wouldn’t know what to say about that, or…even if I must make clear that, as a magistrate, I’m reluctant to talk of things I’m not certain of…” “There is an ongoing investigation though?” “I do know that there is an ongoing investigation.”
There are some frequently used Italian words that may be useful here for getting across the effect of the stories told in Travaglio’s book: polverone (a great cloud of dust) describes the confusion generated by extravagant and hotly contested versions of the same ambiguous incident; fantapolitica refers to fantastic, scandalous, usually paranoid accounts of what is going on in political life; dietrologia (behind-the-scenes-ology) is the obsessive study or invention of fantapolitica and in particular of the way life is pilotata, secretly and illegally manipulated (by one’s enemies); insabbiare’ (to sink something in the sand) describes the process by which an overwhelming quantity of red herrings (often provided by mafia pentiti) and/or red tape can lead to a criminal investigation’s being archiviato, filed away and forgotten.
The sad comedy of a book like L’odore dei soldi, typical of much investigative journalism in Italy, is that the extravagance and sheer abundance of the claims made create such bewilderment in the reader that what damaging content there may be is lost and ignored. That Berlusconi’s companies would have come into contact with the mafia when extending his TV stations to Sicily would hardly be surprising. That he was involved in the murder of Borsellino, as Travaglio vaguely hints, is about as believable as that the Queen ordered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Here is a typical paragraph: Travaglio has just quoted Berlusconi’s assistant Marcello Dell’Utri as saying that he wasn’t aware that a certain Gaetano Cinà was a mafioso:
Strange. Because Tanino Cinà, born in Palermo in 1930, owner of a laundry and a sports shop in Palermo, together with an elementary school certificate, is reported by all the main pentiti to have been the man who—so write Peter Gomez and Leo Sisti in The Untouchable—at least from 1980 onward and doubtless up until the murders of Falcone and Borsellino (1992), was supposed to have made substantial payments to the mafia on behalf of the Berlusconi group. Cinà obviously denies this. But arrested and questioned in 1996, he would be forced at least to admit having relatives and friends among some of the finest names of the honorable society, names including Mimmo Teresi, cousin and right-hand man to Stefano Bontate.
If Anna Bull’s desperately dry study Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy sets out to establish the persisting importance of the family and local community in the dynamics of Italian public life, it need go no further than this account, in which to be related to someone, or to have been part of a community, is to be presumed guilty, and in which the syntax deployed seems itself to embrace the complications of the extended family. Typical of this kind of journalism is the way an account of the facts gets mixed up with a complacent declaration of cultural superiority (the comment on Cinà’s level of education) which nevertheless doesn’t exclude a certain residual populist romanticism about the very phenomenon condemned (“some of the finest names of the honorable society”). Clarity, whether intellectual or emotional, is not at a premium.
But Berlusconi himself is no stranger to the art of generating confusion. The most amusing part of Travaglio’s book is the section where he describes the dizzying series of Chinese boxes that contained Berlusconi’s financial empire throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Aside from the umbrella finance company, Fininvest, and a variety of real estate and, later, TV companies, he formed twenty-three holding companies, officially owned by old and innocuous friends and relatives, and monotonously named Holding Italiana first, second, third, fourth, etc., as if in an attempt to defy distinction. Quoting the reports of various tax inspections, all launched, it has to be said, soon after Berlusconi’s entry into politics in 1993, Travaglio describes how large sums of money of unknown origin were shunted back and forth between, say, holding companies 9, 10, and 11 or 2, 17, and 6, or 3, 18, and 22, apparently to no end.
Travaglio suggests that the company is laundering dirty money. Clearly something suspicious is going on. What he never mentions is that whenever a piece of real estate changes hands in Italy at least a third of the total value is paid under the table, usually in cash. I know of no exceptions to this habit, at once illegal and tolerated, to the extent that when assessing a client for a mortgage the bank will politely inquire what price he is actually paying for a place as opposed to the price he is declaring for tax purposes. Hence companies dealing in real estate on the truly vast scale of the Berlusconi empire would have needed all kinds of ways of bringing cash amounting to a third of their income into useful circulation.
Travaglio, whose book is mainly an uneasy and inadequately analyzed weave of extended quotations from judicial sources, doesn’t do the work that would be required to give the reader a sense of the relationship of the mysterious sums of money to the size of Berlusconi’s operations overall and the sources of his income. It thus becomes hard to understand what kind or degree of illegality we are talking about. While for the puritan this may hardly seem relevant, for the Italian voter it is crucial.
The same sort of ambiguity hovers over the last and interminably long section of the book, which offers, with no analysis, 170 pages of extracts from the trial, one of the various trials, of Marcello Dell’Utri, to which Berlusconi was called as a prosecution witness. Questioned about a number of potentially illegal movements of huge sums of cash, Berlusconi again and again makes the same fascinating double gesture: on the one hand he assures the judge that back-handers and sweeteners are endemic in the world he moves in, and not only in Italy, but then insists that his companies are unique in never having been involved in such practices. He is clean. On the subject of tax evasion he gives the judge a little lecture that seems to come straight from the political campaign trail:
You know well enough how our tax system works, you know that the present system of high tax rates, the highest in Europe, is such that there is a presumption of systematic elusion and possible evasion. Hence the citizen responds with a certain attitude, on a moral level too that, well… look, a state that doesn’t give back in services what it takes in taxes and that has rates way above the general norm, above the level that our natural sense of justice tells us is right…. When the State asks of a citizen and of the fruit of his toil more than a third of that fruit, then the citizen feels, well… morally at loggerheads with the State.
Having made these appeals, which curiously use exactly the rhetoric of norms and innate morality deployed by those who consider him a scandalous anomaly, Berlusconi then goes on to deny that he or his company has been involved in any wrongdoing. The magistrates could legitimately have picked on anyone but him. I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had with Giambattista Pastorello, the owner of Hellas Verona, a soccer club in Italy’s top Serie A. I asked him whether there wasn’t a conflict of interest in his sons being the agents of some of the expensive players he has bought for the team. “People are just jealous,” he remarked. “The fact is that when an agent is your son he doesn’t ask for twenty thousand dollars under the table when you buy a player.” “Are you saying,” I inquired, “that other player transactions you have made involved illegal payments?” Pastorello smiled: “Of course not.” One of the many trials Berlu-sconi is involved in has to do with his purchase of the player Gianluigi Lentini for his soccer team A.C. Milan, one of the five biggest in Italy. He is accused of false accounting. The general public is not interested.
The comedy of these exchanges between Berlusconi and his judges brings us close to what is not so much the anomaly—for there is no universal norm for public behavior—as one of the main distinguishing features of Italian public life. That there is a gap between what is legal and what is common practice is not unusual anywhere. But a special psychology seems to govern people’s handling of that gap in Italy, with the result that however constantly exposed and alluded to, it never seems to be diminished. The irony of Travaglio’s book is that many of its readers, while suspecting that Berlusconi is guilty as charged, will nevertheless feel a certain sympathy with the man. It is not, they sense, or not only because he has broken the law that he is being put on trial. Behind this intuition lies all the Italian vocation for factionalism. However much one may appeal to national unity and the authority of the state, no institution, least of all the judiciary, is ultimately perceived as anything other than one more warring group in competition with one’s own.
Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy poses a dull and naive premise: in a “traditional” society people vote “passively,” according to family and community allegiances; in a modern society the individual emerges from family and community and votes “actively,” according to “rational choice.” The author, Anna Cento Bull, a lecturer in European Studies at the University of Bath, sets out to analyze Italy’s position in this presumed evolutionary process by conducting detailed questionnaires of voters in Sesto San Giovanni, an area of declining heavy industry in the suburbs of Milan that traditionally voted Communist; and in Erba, a small town near Lake Como that traditionally voted Christian Democrat.
Both communities, like so many in Italy, have recently changed their voting patterns, with DS (the erstwhile Communist Party) losing their majority in Sesto and the Christian Democrats all but disappearing in Erba. Nevertheless, the author’s findings, diligently collected and reviewed with an admirably open mind, do not indicate a move to the vision of the sovereign individual deciding how to vote on the basis of rational self-interest mediated by conscience. In particular, the huge 1996 vote in Erba for the federalist, if not separatist, Northern League suggests a renewal of localism, with people consistently voting in line with community and family. The phenomenon obliges the author to consider the notion that the future of a sense of identity does not reside entirely with the freewheeling individual. On the contrary, where such an individual exists, he or she may actually choose to join the fold of a collective identity, which, far from being trapped in the past, can be dynamic and forward-looking. But such qualities do not necessarily mean that all is sweetness and light. Bull concludes with a reflection that gets closer than anything else I have read to what one senses is happening in Italian society:
…Whereas traditionally the Catholic and communist subcultures exercised a pervasive influence upon and successfully appeared to encompass the entire territorial community, nowadays a political subculture…seems to represent the interests and needs of specific groups within a territory. The exclusionary aspect of a political subculture (“Us” versus the “Others”) has become more in evidence than its inclusionary one.
In the light, then, of what seems to be an exacerbation of factionalism, rather than the reverse, let us try to understand the story of Berlusconi’s new party, Forza Italia, now by far the largest political party nationwide in Italy, and the prospects for the new government it has formed in coalition with the Northern League and the contrastingly nationalist National Alliance (a party descended from the Movimento Sociale Italiano, which in turn was descended from the Italian Fascist Party).
Born in 1936, the son of a bank clerk who became a bank director, the exemplary young Silvio Berlusconi pays for his university education by singing to tourists on summer cruise ships. In his early twenties he invests his father’s retirement fund in real estate development. In very short order he wins the right to develop Milano 2, a complex of four thousand homes in an eastern suburb of Milan. Generous with space and greenery and including all possible services, the project is recognized as a model development. By the early Seventies Berlusconi’s real estate development company becomes the largest in Italy. Father Luigi and brother Paolo are ever beside him. This is a clan in the making.
With the removal of the state monopoly on TV broadcasting in 1976, Berlusconi begins a cable TV channel for Milano 2 which is rapidly transformed into a local channel for the whole of Lombardy. Hindered by a state monopoly on national broadcasts, he purchases local channels across the country and has them broadcast pre-recorded programs simultaneously. Taken to court, he claims he is fighting for liberty: the image of the modern entrepreneur embattled against the forces of an obtuse and entrenched status quo is born. Certainly the general public is on his side. Berlusconi’s large contributions to the Socialist Party of Bettino Craxi, a key player in the coalition government of the time, guarantee Berlusconi protection and eventually lead to a made-to-measure law that legalizes his position.
Exploiting a consumer-boom thirst for advertising space, Berlusconi’s TV channels rapidly produce huge incomes. He establishes two more national networks and thus commands more than 40 percent of viewing time with a near monopoly in the private sector. In 1991 he is able to offer the first national news program that can compete with the public television channels still largely following the dictates of the old political parties. Italy does not have a strong tradition of independent TV journalism.
Married with two children, Berlu-sconi falls in love with a young actress, divorces, and remarries. This does not prevent him from presenting himself, ad nauseam, as a family man. Three more children, all of them enviably handsome, will follow. The older children take their places in the business. The younger attend a Steiner School which forbids them to watch TV. Meantime, Berlusconi purchases one of Italy’s major book and magazine publishers, Mondadori, and the highly popular A.C. Milan team. His commercial successes seem endless; his largesse to family and friends is huge. With 30,000 employees, he is now the second-largest employer in Italy.
In 1992, the “Clean Hands” investigation into Tangentopoli takes a heavy toll on Berlusconi’s political connections, leaving him without protection. Craxi flees the country to avoid prison. When elections are announced for the spring of 1994, it seems inevitable that the left will at last take power. Berlusconi joins those who speak of “Clean Hands” as an example of one faction’s use of the judicial process to destroy another, not an impartial application of the law. Apparently terrified by the prospect of a left-wing government, he does everything to persuade what players remain in the center and right of Italian politics to form some kind of coalition capable of winning with the country’s new majority voting system. The various fragments will not agree. Advised to the contrary by his closest associates and family, Berlusconi nevertheless forms his own movement, Forza Italia, in February 1993. His instinct is to make it a center party but his market research tells him to stay to the right: a liberal ticket of fewer taxes and radical deregulation is the thing. Bringing together an improbable coalition of the country’s two political pariahs, the Northern League and the National Alliance, he, amazingly, wins the elections of March 28.
It is now that Berlusconi experiences his first spectacular failure. Ninety percent of his party’s deputies are new to parliament. They are inexperienced. The Northern League and the National Alliance are at loggerheads. Under fire for the glaring conflict of interests—the prime minister now not only owns three national TV channels whose license to broadcast is granted by the government, but is also in a position to control the output of the competing public channels—Berlusconi is nevertheless reluctant to distance himself from his TV holdings. He is an empire builder, not a constitutionalist. His first attempts to deregulate business law are successful, but then the government turns to the problem of pensions. It is universally recognized that Italian pensions are ruinously generous. Berlusconi proposes a drastic reform that would bring the country in line with others and make Italy “normal.” As a result, the hitherto divided left is at last given an issue to unite around. Nobody wants to surrender acquired pension rights, however abnormal they may be. There are huge demonstrations, larger than any in the history of the country.
A man who loves to be seen as a benefactor, not a pruner, Berlusconi loses his nerve. His businesses are now under constant assault from the tax police. While presiding, in Palermo, over a United Nations conference on international crime, he is given formal notice that he himself is under investigation for corruption. The magistrates involved claim this timing was not deliberate. They are not under oath. When the Northern League deserts the coalition, Berlusconi resigns, imagining that new elections will be called. Instead, President Scalfaro gives a mandate to a government of “technicians” supported by the fragments of the center, the left, and the League. At this low point many imagined that Berlusconi’s love affair with politics was over, and that his virtual, TV-driven party would surely wilt as rapidly as it had blossomed.
More than seven years later, Gianfranco Pasquino, professor of political science at the University of Bologna and one of Italy’s most respected political commentators, finds himself reviewing Berlusconi’s pre-election manifesto book, L’Italia che ho in mente (“The Italy I Have in Mind”) in La Rivista dei Libri (the Italian journal affiliated with The New York Review). It is well known that Pasquino’s sympathies are with the left. Nevertheless, he does not, like so many, write Berlusconi off as merely a corrupt tycoon and vulgar showman. On the contrary, the man has stayed the political course:
For those who think with D’Alema [then secretary of DS] that these days it’s enough to have “TV and cash” to make it in politics, Berlusconi’s book will hold many surprises: a speech to the first National Assembly of Forza Italia’s Women Members,…a speech to the first National Assembly of Senior Members, a speech to the National Congress of Young Members, a speech to the Councillors of Lombardy…. It would be interesting to know how many of the secretaries of traditional parties have worked the circuit so hard…. The truth is that if Forza Italia is no longer nor in any sense a tinsel party, it owes its transformation to the unflagging efforts of its founder and president. In short, the party’s successful organization is the result of much hard work and is well deserved.
These remarks echo the findings of Anna Bull in Social Identities, who recognizes the importance of traditional methods of creating a sense of community and drumming up support. How Berlusconi would gloat! For what emerges from the three hundred and more pages of his book is not so much an acute political analysis, or a coherent program of reform, as the man’s growing excitement with his own image, his chosen role as visionary political leader. Not for nothing does the book take the form of transcripts of speeches complete with italicized notes in parentheses (applausi) (applausi prolungati). The man’s instinctive gesture, as when he sang on those cruise ships in his youth, is that of seduction. He is determined to introduce you to his clan. He actually needs for you to succumb to him. He is charming. He will work night and day to have you believe in him. If you join him, he will sweat blood not to disappoint you. As he repeats over and over his sensible, laissez-faire policies for getting Italy’s overregulated economy moving again, it is hard to keep your attention on such dull issues. Rather one is fascinated, appalled, by the terrible psychology that condemns this talented tycoon to go on and on overachieving, swallowing up the whole world in his one camp. Frequently he refers to Forza Italia as a large happy family with himself at the head.
Perhaps Berlusconi’s obsession is not an unnatural reaction to endemic factionalism. The Istituto Cattaneo’s annual reviews include at the outset a list of “the main party acronyms used in this text.” There are thirty-one in the account of the events of 1997. Despite the introduction of a majority voting system, all kinds of laws encourage the existence of small parties. Any party with over one percent of the vote receives 3,400 lire ($1.60) for every vote polled, this despite a referendum in which Italians clearly indicated that they did not want political parties to receive public funds. All parties with minimal representation in parliament are granted equal time for party political broadcasts. Thus a fragmented coalition gets more free time than one of two or three parties. But that does not mean it will be more successful. Unlike the lobby, the small party is interested not in the achievement of any particular policy, but in the perpetuation of itself, the affirmation of its own group. As a result postures are frequently struck in perverse defiance of coalition partners in order to gain the limelight.
So complex is the resulting parliamentary situation that surveys such as those provided by the Istituto Cattaneo are absolutely essential for getting any kind of overview of the constantly shifting alliances that lie behind Italy’s frequent if largely cosmetic changes of government. In the years between 1996 (when, despite all his TV ownership, Berlusconi lost the general election) and 2001 (when, despite a ban on political party TV commercials, he nevertheless won convincingly), there were five governments. In an attempt to overcome the inevitably weak executive that results from this state of affairs, the parliament set up a so-called bicameral commission with cross-party membership from upper and lower houses to discuss major constitutional reforms. To read, in the Istituto Cattaneo’s roundup, the account of the interminable workings of this commission and its ultimate and complete failure is to have a sense of the meaningless-ness of much of Berlusconi’s “just-let-me-get-on-with-the-job” rhetoric, but also an awareness of the man’s growing capacities as a peculiarly Italian politician.
Again the author of the study is Gianfranco Pasquino. Rapidly, he sketches in the positions of the main players. The president of the commission, DS secretary Massimo D’Alema, was eager to show his statesmanship by achieving a definitive solution to the Italian problem, but behind him he had a party and above all a coalition historically opposed to a strong executive. Berlusconi was looking for a presidential system that would allow him to be directly elected as head of state. However, before he would agree to anything, he wanted the judiciary reformed in such a way that would allow him to escape the unceasing investigations into his past.
D’Alema might have been willing to grant such a reform in return for sensible constitutional change, but knew that his party would object. On the right, Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the National Alliance, was willing to sign almost any deal merely for the legitimacy that would be conferred on him by having been seen to be involved in it. Ironically, he was D’Alema’s staunchest ally. At the same time Fini couldn’t afford to irritate Berlusconi, since it was Berlusconi who had given him legitimacy in the first place by accepting him into his coalition. Fini was frightened that D’Alema and Berlusconi might make the classic Italian gesture of forming an amorphous central coalition that would forever exclude him.
Meantime, the half-dozen central parties, mainly fragments of the former Christian Democrats, together with two “green” parties and the far- left Rifondazione Communista, were working hard to avoid any solution that would endanger their continued existence. They did this by constantly threatening to pull out of the government coalition and thus end the legislature if the commission produced a constitution that did not suit them. Needless to say, as leader of the opposition Berlusconi had a certain interest in encouraging them to do this. The Northern League, meantime, still in a radically separatist phase, was only interested in demonstrating that the nation-state is unworkable. Having walked out of the commission at the beginning, they staged a dramatic comeback to swing a crucial vote in favor of a directly elected president, something D’Alema hadn’t wanted and that the League itself had previously opposed.
Seeing the work of the commission unexpectedly close to being concluded in the direction he wished, but without his having resolved his judicial problems, Berlusconi now claimed that the presidency envisaged by the commission did not have significant powers; and so he scuppered the whole process. Upon which D’Alema, after 480 hours of meetings, gave up in disgust. Pasquino comments: “The real contents [of the reforms] always remained of marginal concern for the majority of commission members.”
I mention this episode (of which I have omitted half the details), chosen from among many others of equally Byzantine complexity all excellently covered in the Istituto Cattaneo’s reviews, to hint at what can and cannot be expected from Berlusconi’s government in the forthcoming months. Italy is a country where identity is largely structured around a person’s membership in various groupings (geographical, cultural, economic) that are fiercely if often only theatrically embattled with other groupings. “You exist only through your hate for us,” writes a Verona football supporter, in local dialect, to Verona’s traditional enemies, the supporters of Vicenza, on his club’s Web site. It might just as well be the unions talking to the employers, the north to the south, state workers to the self-employed, the ex-Communists to the ex-Fascists. Except in moments of extreme crisis, no central authority or even common good is recognized.
There is thus an ongoing, century-old debate about how this state of affairs might be overcome. One attempt to break the deadlock has been the use of the referendum. The politicians acknowledge that they can’t agree and invite the public to decide directly. But while this worked with such thorny yes/no moral issues as divorce and abortion, it has not been helpful when it comes to rewriting the constitution. On a day-to-day basis there is the resort to the government decree rather than the parliamentary vote. But a government decree must be ratified by parliament within a year. Tax laws passed by decree and later revoked with retrospective force have caused considerable confusion.
A more successful solution to the problem was that presented by Romano Prodi’s government of 1996–1998. This was a coalition of the left with a “technician” as prime minister and a single goal in mind, to move heaven and earth to meet the economic requirements that would allow Italy to join the euro zone (so that even more legislation could be dictated from Brussels). Since this was perceived as an absolute national emergency, Prodi governed with relative ease. No sooner were the requirements met, largely by the application of ad hoc measures that interfered with no one’s long-term interests, than the coalition began to crumble and Prodi was out.
Finally there is the possibility that a strong and charismatic figure might emerge who could actually persuade people to agree. Here we arrive at the curiosity that what is truly anomalous about Berlusconi from an Italian point of view is not so much the accusations against him of corruption or his glaring conflicts of interest, as the fact that he does indeed unequivocally lead both his own party and the coalition, to the extent that both depend absolutely on his personality. Berlusconi’s election campaign insisted on the idea of personal leadership being transferred into action. He refused a television debate with his opponent Francesco Rutelli on the grounds that the man was a puppet figure put up by the left with no real authority. Although his real reasons for refusing the debate probably had to do with the fear that the younger and photogenic Rutelli might come across as more attractive and lucid than himself, he was nevertheless right about Rutelli’s authority. Since the election Rutelli has spent his time trying and so far failing to forge a single party out of the four parties of his “Margherita” coalition, which amounted to just over a third of the overall center-left Olive Tree coalition. It is not clear who is the parliamentary leader of the opposition.
Once elected, Berlusconi’s government did indeed move rapidly to introduce a number of sensible if minor administrative measures: allowing the health service to use cheaper generic drugs; cutting the red tape that makes it difficult for schools to get the teachers they need before the academic year starts; sorting out the relationship between central government and regions with regard to health spending, etc. But the real test of the prime minister’s ability to act will come when he confronts the two issues that are considered most anomalous and debilitating in Italy’s economy: the law that makes it almost impossible for a company with more than fifteen employees to fire anyone; and the pension system, which is once again up for review after an inadequate reform in 1995.
Given that Italy has never shared the Anglo-Saxon obsession with self-reliance (clannism is so strong precisely because of the absence of this dubious virtue), any reform of these two matters will generate the maximum opposition inside and outside parliament. And at this point Berlu-sconi may well pay the price for his behavior in the bicameral commission when he effectively obstructed the emergence of a constitutionally strong executive. Sergio Cofferati, in particular, head of the largest and most powerful trade union, has promised industrial action and widespread protest, no doubt with the intention of toppling the government, as happened seven years ago. In response the Northern League has already indicated that it will not support the prime minister in changing the employment law or the pension system (despite the fact that if anyone is clamoring for change in labor law it is the small businessmen of the north who voted for the League).
Berlusconi is cannier than he was seven years ago. He has tied his coalition partners closer to him by offering their leaders important government positions. He will move more slowly and circumspectly. He will try to get the unions involved in dialogue. He will offer some apparent resolution of his conflict-of-interest problem, though whether or not he genuinely separates himself from his television stations, his enemies will never believe he has and his supporters hardly care anyway. But for all these developments, it remains in doubt whether the man will be able to offer anything other than another version of Italian immobility, which, after all, is but the downside of a social structure that still makes this country an extremely attractive place in which to live, and not quite like anywhere else.
October 18, 2001