Vote me out of jail, or I will bring the country down with me. This, essentially, is the message Silvio Berlusconi—four-time prime minister, owner of the country’s three main commercial TV channels, criminal defendant many times over—has just sent to the Italian government, one that clarifies at last the exact nature of what is at stake in Italy at the present moment: is this a modern state where the rule of law prevails or is it the fiefdom of an institutionalized outlaw? At present there is no way of saying which vision will carry the day.
After a dozen trials, many of which have gone through all three levels of Italian justice (primary trial, appeal, counter appeal), after making ad personam laws to have his crimes de-penalized, or using delaying tactics to have trials thrown out because the crimes alleged in them are time-barred, or facing guilty verdicts at one level and acquittals at another, Berlusconi has finally received a definitive and unappealable criminal sentence at the highest level, for tax fraud in the region of €7 million ($9 million) and for the creation of a slush fund of some €280 million ($375 million). Sentenced to four years in prison, he has benefited from a pardon aimed at emptying the country’s jails, which has reduced the sentence to one year—this despite the fact that, being over seventy, he will be allowed to serve his sentence at one of his various luxury homes. However, as an elected member of the senate, he enjoys immunity from arrest and cannot be forced into confinement until the senate approves his expulsion, a vote that could take place in September. He has now made it clear that if that vote goes against him he will bring the whole house down.
That Berlusconi can indeed cause havoc is evident. He runs, in a sense owns, one of the two large parties in the present coalition government, which is struggling to introduce major reforms to stop the now dramatic decline in the Italian economy and finally inspire some confidence among foreign investors. If Berlusconi withdraws his party from the coalition, as he has threatened, it seems unlikely that another government could be formed with the present hung parliament. That would mean new elections, based on an electoral law (brought in by Berlusconi himself in 2005) almost guaranteed to create another hung parliament. The fear is that such an outcome will paralyze the country, taking Italy straight back to where it was two years ago, when pressure from financial markets seemed on the point of forcing it to seek an EU bailout or consider immediate exit from the euro. At present about 40 percent of the country’s young people are unemployed, while manufacturing output is 26 percent below its 2007 level.
If Nixon had refused to accept impeachment and had tried somehow to hang on to power, he would have been summarily removed. The same goes for any leader in Europe’s main democracies. Most will step down at the first sign of a serious criminal charge against them, aware that their parties will not support someone who damages their cause. The truly disquieting aspect of the present situation in Italy is not so much Berlusconi’s brazenness, but that his blackmail is possible and credible, that he has such complete control over such a large political party, and that he still commands considerable popular support. Astonishing as it may seem to those not familiar with the country, even serious newspapers and respectable commentators seem reluctant to insist on the enforcement of law, rarely mentioning the details of his crimes and actually giving credence to the argument that removing Berlusconi from the political scene would amount to disenfranchising the millions of voters who supported him at the previous election, as if there was no autonomous party in parliament to represent their views, as if they were not free to choose another leader before the next election.
How did this come about?
The character of Berlusconi himself is one reason. The man is charming, charismatic, persuasive, and ruthless. His dominant media empire acts as a megaphone for those qualities, allowing him constantly to shape the national debate. During his years in government, he made key appointments in the public news networks to consolidate that power, and his financial resources are such as to intimidate even those outside his immediate area of influence. Quite simply he monopolizes the headlines, and his opinions always appear first. His opponents are largely seen through the distorting mirror of the media he controls: if those opponents try to attack him, they are presented as Berlusconi-obsessed, and if they denounce his misdemeanors, they are accused of trying to defeat him in the courts rather than through the ballot box, a sign of weakness. This huge conflict of interests and the timidity with which Italian society has responded to it has never been properly addressed and remains as little spoken about as the crimes Berlusconi is accused of.
Yet none of these reasons, whether taken separately or together, would in themselves be sufficient to permit Berlusconi to hold a nation in thrall for so long were there not something in Italian culture that predisposes people to be charmed, enchanted, persuaded, and above all intimidated—ready, in short, to believe Berlusconi’s promises or accept his presence as inevitable, in the same way they have accepted a corrupt elite for so long.
The success of Berlusconi is thus not a blip or an anomaly, but goes to the heart of Italian culture, and reveals the widespread disbelief in Italy that politics could ever be cleaned up or made remotely fair. So Berlusconi’s insistence that the criminal charges against him are merely trumped up by his enemies finds fertile territory; even those who oppose him are willing to assume that an element of persecution is involved, as if what mattered were not his guilt but the spirit in which the investigation is carried out, since every politician is presumed guilty one way or another and it’s common credence that no action on any side of the political spectrum is ever genuinely undertaken with the public interest at heart. Many people are actually rather comfortable with this state of affairs insofar as it justifies their own small misdemeanors and tax evasions. Hence, if the judiciary prevails and Berlusconi is excluded from political life, millions of Italians will see this not as the affirmation of a rule of law (something that might make life more challenging for everybody), but simply as one battle won by the other side. In short, the polarities good/evil, moral/immoral, or even effective/ineffective around which we suppose that politicians should be assessed and judged are always subordinate in Italy to the overriding question of winning or losing, which is absolutely the only thing that matters. And Berlusconi has always presented himself, above all, as a winner.
Remarking on Italian customs in 1826, the poet Giacomo Leopardi reflected that no Italian was ever wholeheartedly admired or condemned but always had both supporters and detractors even after death. This is certainly true, running through the heroes and villains of Italian life from Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Cavour, through Mussolini to Craxi, Andreotti, and Berlusconi. Garibaldi still has his vociferous detractors, and Mussolini his strident supporters. Leopardi’s perception was that Italians find it difficult to imagine a leader as more than the leader of a faction or particular interest group, and hence will not change their opinion of him whatever the consequences of his leadership. Certainly, during his years in government, Berlusconi presided over the country’s economic decline, yet his support remains fairly constant; because a certain constituency believes he carries their battle to an old enemy, his crimes and failures are irrelevant.
So when the wise columnists in some of the country’s most respected newspapers suggest that it might be expedient to save Berlusconi and rescue the government, what they are doing is accepting the age-old intuition that politics will always be corrupt and that there are other, more serious things to worry about. If Berlusconi is spared imprisonment, even at home, and allowed to continue in politics, the perception that a political leader is more a feudal lord than an ordinary citizen will be absolutely confirmed, and there will be no chance of shifting Italian attitudes for many years to come.