THE European political leader whose name has long been associated with scandal is now facing his gravest legal challenge. On 15 February, prosecutors in Milan called Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to trial on two charges: procuring the services of a seventeen-year-old girl, Karima El Mahroug, for sex, and abusing power by negotiating with the police in an attempt to secure her release from custody.
This latest crisis, arguably the most severe of Berlusconi’s long period of domination, coincides with Italy’s response to the upheavals in the Middle East – including in its former colony, Libya – and comes in the run-up to the 150th anniversary of Italian unity this month. It illustrates the vacuum at the heart of Italy’s politics: the lack of a figure who can rise above private or party interests and usher in a new era of reform. It has been one of the mysteries of contemporary Italian politics that Berlusconi’s political fortunes have not dipped noticeably in the midst of a series of scandals, and this is in part because of a lack of serious leaders both among his allies and within the opposition.
Recent opinion polls suggest that this time his support is declining, however, and he certainly appears more worried in public than before. Nevertheless, after a day or so of reflection once the trial date was announced, Berlusconi went on the counter-attack, denouncing the process as a “farce” and the magistrates for being politically motivated. In the past he has been at his most dangerous in such situations, convincing his supporters that he is a victim and claiming the democratic high ground as the authentic voice of the people against unelected elites.
Berlusconi has evaded prosecution on successive occasions either by exploiting the statute of limitations or under the protection of parliamentary immunity. This time, when he appears before three (female) judges on 6 April 2011, there may be no escape – and not merely because the latest accusations concern events in 2010, and in January 2011 the constitutional court significantly weakened the April 2010 law that had granted temporary immunity to Il Cavaliere and senior colleagues. It is also because the stakes have become so high: Italy has become so damagingly entrenched in the mire of Berlusconi’s private and public excesses that its very economic and political security, as well as its prestige, is at risk.
The fresh case against Silvio Berlusconi is but the latest in a series of corruption and sex scandals he (and therefore Italy) has been embroiled in for more than a decade. But in recent months a turning point seems to have been reached, with what appears to be a rapid and irreversible decline in his public standing. Polling results released on 14 February suggest that only 30 per cent of Italians now support him.
Italy’s bruised reputation is largely the result of Berlusconi’s success in recasting the country in his own image. A fusion of money, sex and personal interests has allowed Berlusconismo to corrode the normal safeguards: the rule of law, equal citizenship and political transparency. Italy’s very identity is suffering as a result, and since the trial date was announced critics and foreign correspondents have talked of the “bunga bunga” nation and the derogatory way women have been represented in Berlusconi’s political formation – his equal opportunities minister, for example, is a former topless dancer – as well as at his own private parties. Power, for Silvio Berlusconi, extends seamlessly across the boundaries of the public and the private.
As many as a million demonstrators, the huge majority of them women, filled the cities on 13 February 2011 in protest against Berlusconi’s use of his power to degrade women. “Italy is not a brothel,” read a placard carried by some protesters. The sight of a national political leader providing rent-free accommodation (“dolls’ houses”) to young women so they can attend sex parties at his villas suggests a leader contemptuous of the duties of public office.
The growing number of Italians who are calling for Berlusconi’s resignation also know that removing him is only the first step in reclaiming Italy’s status as a serious partner. The country’s stagnant economy has deep structural problems; its unease over immigrants and diversity is intensified by the arrival of more north Africans following the Tunisian revolt; and its domestic troubles mean that a country which in the past has embodied the best traditions of Mediterranean civilisation is unable to play a leading role at a time of crisis in the Middle East.
In fact, it is not yet clear what the immediate consequences of the Middle East revolution will hold for Italy and Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s personal friendship with Gaddafi, cemented in the 2008 Treaty of Friendship between the two countries, has been well-documented. Combined with the Italian government’s tough policies on immigration, in which arrangements with Libya play a key role, the treaty has attracted increasingly critical attention. Italy’s response to the crisis in its former colony was initially one of indifference; Berlusconi clearly did not want to interfere in the affairs of a friend and ally with whom he has conducted much business. Next came the attempt by Italy’s interior minister, Roberto Maroni (a Northern League ideologue), to devolve to the European Union the responsibility for hosting incoming migrants from Libya and the Middle East. According to Umberto Bossi, the Northern League’s long-term leader, they should be sent to France or Germany, even though Italy has one of the lowest immigration rates among major countries in the union.
Meanwhile, the size of Italy’s Libyan assets has worked against calls for sanctions. According to the Economist magazine, Italy’s response to the crisis in Libya should be a source of shame. Berlusconi’s own predicament has become an issue in the debate about how to respond, and while his links with Gaddafi have made him vulnerable, many feel that he will use the crisis to deflect attention from his own problems and will allow the Northern League to impose its harsh immigration agenda. Divisions are already very evident between the north and the south of Italy over what to do with newly arriving migrants from Libya and Tunisia and what measures to take at the major arrival point, the island of Lampedusa. These divisions have added to the wider political conflicts and have reinforced the sense of political uncertainty and economic stagnation attributed to Berlusconi’s own problems. There is therefore likely to be a very embittered and rancorous political climate as Berlusconi goes to trial.
Indeed, I would argue that Italy itself – as it prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the moment of national unification on 17 March 1861 – is on trial. For the country is now divided in multiple ways: in economic terms (including between north and south, but across other divides as well), by generation, and over immigration and the rise of the xenophobic Northern League, Berlusconi’s main political allies. Above all, Italy is polarised over the figure of Berlusconi himself: part of the country is indifferent to his excesses and unperturbed by his continuation in office; the other part is horrified at the damage he has done to Italy’s image yet frustrated at the absence of a viable political alternative.
SOME of these divisions are familiar, but together they create a situation that has few precedents in Italy’s modern history. Italian unification was later than in other European countries and regional identities have persisted, reflected not only in the positively vibrant linguistic and culinary traditions but also in a lack of a sense of state and a flawed idea of national unity. These problems were amplified by the ideological divisions over fascism and its legacy and the unresolved socioeconomic inequality between the north and the south. Both these sources of division continue to shape contemporary politics.
In this context, the pompous rhetoric of national unity that will emanate from Italy’s political class around 17 March will mean little. Italy’s foreign minister is compromised by his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to defend the prime minister’s immunity from judicial investigations; this is the same Franco Frattini who, responding to an article I wrote for the Financial Times, described criticism of Berlusconi’s culture of illegality as an “anti-Italian” prejudice. The long-term failure to reform Italy’s constitution and create a more transparent democratic system is partly a failure of statesmanship. There is a noticeable absence in Italy of a unifying figure who can rise above the private interests that have dominated the Berlusconi era.
This vacuum applies to the left as well as the right. In some centre-left circles there is a kind of provincialism that prevents a wholesale critique of the political system, its remote political class and the closed party-list electoral system. The new Democratic Party remains a collection of old party interests rather than a coalition of new social forces and political subjects. These interests continue to stand in the way of genuine reform and there is a revealing lack of energy or imagination in projecting an alternative vision.
It is no longer enough to say that Italy’s problematic political class is at root just a variant of political elites in other countries. At a general level, political disengagement and cynicism among European electorates may be commonplace. But Italy faces particular problems to do with its history and political culture, and blind loyalty to the nation is not the same as statesmanship. Easy comparisons with other European countries also misrepresent the seriousness of Italy’s predicament.
The absence of alternatives is largely the responsibility of the official opposition. The attempts by Massimo D’Alema, Walter Veltroni and other failed leaders of the centre-left to negotiate with Berlusconi, their tendency to play down his excesses and keep a distance from the rising movement of opposition in civil society, has only played into the prime minister’s hands. It has been the worst form of political capitulation. Indeed, the demonstrations on 13 February can be seen partly as a response to these leaders’ ineptitude.
The spectacle of Berlusconi publicly denouncing magistrates and disregarding their authority has alienated even some of his former allies. Former ally Gianfranco Fini broke with Berlusconi last year to set up his own Future and Freedom Party, and brought a no-confidence vote to parliament in December 2010 that was only narrowly defeated; he says that Berlusconi’s resignation is the only way forward. Yet, since December Fini’s own supporters have been deserting him and the range of credible alternatives has narrowed even further.
The Northern League is likely to intensify its call for elections, which Berlusconi himself may now consider as a solution to his predicament. This would be a return to his populist view that constitutional niceties and the rule of law can be overridden by appeals to the gut instincts of the Italian people; it is likely to lead to further tensions between Italy’s prime minister and the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, who has pleaded for the trial process to be left to the law.
For the left, Nichi Vendola, the leader of the Puglia region in Italy's south and the sole opposition leader strong and credible enough to take on Berlusconi, will seek to sharpen his challenge. There is no sign yet, though, that Vendola, or any other leader of the centre-left (such as Matteo Renzi, the highly regarded thirty-something mayor of Florence), has the power base to forge a winning coalition.
Nevertheless, the demonstrators who took to the streets of Italy (and other countries) on 13 February increasingly believe that – at last – history is on their side. The street protests and assemblies that toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and threaten others in the Middle East are an extra source of hope. It is a mark of Italy’s decline that Berlusconi is being compared to his old friends Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. Italy, too, is on trial – over its capacity to get rid of Berlusconi and deliver a progressive and modern vision for the country’s future. •