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Berlusconi’s long goodbye

27 October 2010

The cracks in the Italian government are growing wider, writes Geoff Andrews. But can the opposition rise to the challenge?


Above: Comic blogger Beppe Grillo has moved from marginal dissident to serious political opponent.
Photo: Claudio Bisegni/ Flickr

Above: Comic blogger Beppe Grillo has moved from marginal dissident to serious political opponent.
Photo: Claudio Bisegni/ Flickr

SILVIO Berlusconi’s capacity to endure widespread criticism is facing its greatest test. He has become embroiled in an intense conflict with Gianfranco Fini, his closest political ally over the period since he first entered politics in 1994. His government is engulfed in corruption allegations on an almost weekly basis. The perennial conflicts between his vast private interests and his public role have sharpened, bringing new divisions with close allies, the Catholic Church and even his own family.

It’s true that Berlusconi has been through much of this before. And it’s also true that he is skilled at turning adversity to his advantage. This time, however, things seem to have reached a new stage. This is a regime in crisis.

Since 1994, Berlusconi – driven by a personal as well as a political mission to change Italy – has dominated Italian politics. Berlusconismo, which has always been a way of governing and a mode of power rather than a political ideology, has at least partially succeeded in reinventing Italy in the prime minister’s own image. In a classic fusion of wealth, charisma and populism, he has convinced sufficient numbers of Italians often enough that his route to riches and power – standing up to the Italian political class and defeating the “system” – can work for them too.

Berlusconi intuitively understands the virtual, media-driven world he both inhabits and dominates, and this has given his brand of postmodern populism a huge political advantage over consistently lacklustre opponents. Even as he operates on the margins of legality and depends on the support of a large team of lawyers to keep the show on the road, he has always kept a pace ahead of his adversaries.

Now, with the cracks increasingly visible, Berlusconismo’s intolerant streak is ever more apparent and the margins of permissible dissent are narrowing considerably. Berlusconi’s own media have turned viciously on former allies, while the public broadcasting system – still indirectly under his control – has removed his critics (most notably the TV presenter Michele Santoro). But the bullying that once intimidated now seems to reveal weakness; the fractures this time look irreparable.

The most serious conflict has been with Gianfranco Fini. What makes it especially sharp is that Fini, the speaker of the chamber of deputies, is Berlusconi’s longstanding political and governmental colleague. An ex-fascist who attempted to remodel his National Alliance into a mainstream conservative party before it merged with Forward Italy to become the People of Liberty in 2008, Fini has been increasingly irked by Berlusconi’s determination to protect his own power base through legislation for parliamentary immunity and by his frequent attacks on the judiciary.

The simmering tension exploded in an extraordinary public shouting match at a party congress in April, when Fini – a centralist who has traditionally enjoyed strong support in southern Italy – criticised both the influence of Umberto Bossi’s xenophobic Northern League in the government’s agenda and aspects of Berlusconi’s leadership style.

Fini’s criticisms of Berlusconi have put the future of the government in some peril. He has now left People of Liberty to set up his own grouping, and will be a significant player in any future centre-right alternative. More seriously for Berlusconi, Fini’s newly combative stance has put the prime minister’s future career in doubt.

It may sound bizarre to refer in such terms to a seventy-four-year-old premier, but in Italy politicians rarely retire – and in Berlusconi’s case, there are other serious issues at stake. Many commentators believe that his ambition, after the completion of his current term as prime minister in 2013, is to become president of the Italian republic. This extended period in senior office would further feed his relentless political ambition as well as protect him from the courts (especially if he can entrench his parliamentary immunity).

Berlusconi’s response to the challenge posed by Fini – as an emerging opponent and a plausible successor – has been staggeringly intense and vitriolic. Il Giornale, a paper owned by the Berlusconi family, has launched persistent attacks on Fini, referring to him as “comrade” for his support of civil-rights issues. Amid a wider smear campaign, the allegation that has attracted most attention – despite the fact that it is unsubstantiated and relatively minor – is that Fini purchased an apartment in Monte Carlo previously owned by the National Alliance and let it to the brother of his partner.

Il Giornale has also attacked other prominent critics of Berlusconi, including Emma Marcegaglia, the head of the business federation Confindustria, who questioned the prime minister’s optimistic reading of the state of the Italian economy. The release of information suggesting that the paper was preparing a lengthy, personalised campaign against Ms Marcegaglia has led to a police investigation of the newspaper.

DESPITE Berlusconi’s woes, the official opposition remains timid in its arguments, toothless in its ability to address the core of Italy’s problems, and continually incapable of articulating any persuasive post-Berlusconi vision. It’s true that demonstrations in defence of workers’ rights and democracy are growing. But the left’s recent record of wasted potential suggests that its one current bright hope – Nichi Vendola of Left Ecology Freedom – is likely to be thwarted by the apparatchiks of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party.

For some time, editors in the media have been asking their Rome correspondents: “How does Berlusconi get away with it?” Whatever the answer (and there are many possible ones), the query should now be supplemented by another: “Why can’t the opposition in Italy get its act together?” To answer this one, observers need to look beyond some of the more superficial representations of Italy in the foreign media and engage with the complexities of the political world that the opposition seeks to govern.

Part of the explanation for the weakness of the political opposition lies in the social faultlines in Italian life, which have been among the sources of Berlusconi’s enduring power. The opposition parties need to identify the political, cultural and intellectual resources that will drive the kind of society Italy needs to become in the post-Berlusconi era. Berlusconi understands the impact of the fragmented, “postmodern” media, which is still a mystery to those of his opponents wedded to the era and practices of “mass politics.”

Meanwhile, Italy’s civil-society movements are challenging traditional ideas of “politics” and “opposition” – with satirists, bloggers, film-directors and actors among their most prominent figures – and seem, at times, to be the sole opposition to a decayed political class. One notable example has been the filmmaker Erik Gandini, who has created an extraordinary social document called Videocracy, which in effect argues that Silvio Berlusconi has (mainly through television) initiated a cultural revolution that has moulded Italians in his own image. From this perspective Berlusconismo’s drenching celebrity culture has a sinister twist – consolidating the leader’s almost unassailable personal power by creating a public culture in his own image. As a result, what the Italian think-tank Vision refers to as the “B-factor” continues to dominate Italy and set the terms of political debate.

Italy’s public broadcaster, RAI, refused to screen the trailers for Gandini’s film, following a familiar pattern of threats and censorship in response to artists’ interventions. The same scorn was poured on Sabina Guzzanti’s new film Draquila: L’Italia Che Trema (Draquila: Italy Trembles), which the Italian culture minister Sandro Bondi dismissed as a “propaganda film… that insults the truth and the Italian people.” The film, whose title combines Dracula and L’Aquila (the Abruzzo town devastated by an earthquake in April 2009 which killed almost 300 people and made 60,000 homeless), is a courageous attempt to address the plight of citizens who feel abandoned by their government. It won a standing ovation at the 2010 Cannes film festival.

An earlier example of an artistic effort to make sense of Italy’s predicament under Berlusconi is Nanni Moretti’s Il Caimano (The Crocodile), released just before the 2006 election. Moretti had already played a major role in civil-society movements that campaigned against Berlusconi’s conflicts of interests in the absence of any leadership from the official opposition. “With these leaders we will never win,” he famously told a crowd in Piazza Navona in Rome in 2002, with the centre-left functionaries behind him – largely the same crowd that leads the Democratic Party today.

More recently, the comic blogger Beppe Grillo – a constant critic of the corrupt nature of Italy’s political class – has moved from marginal dissident to serious political opponent; in the regional elections of March 2010 his Five-Star Movement captured half a million votes. His challenge extends beyond Berlusconi to the timid and compromised politicians of the official opposition, among which only Antonio Di Pietro’s party, Italy of Values, is a promising exception. Grillo’s imaginative use of new media has helped him to establish an extraordinary political network.

Italy’s rich political history, strong artisanal and artistic traditions, regional identities, small family businesses and many successful technological innovations mean that it deserves better than its present crop of political leaders. But a serious political alternative to Berlusconi won’t emerge by itself; it will be built only by embracing these very positive aspects of Italian culture and making them part of the “cause.” On their own, these cultural critics cannot end Berlusconismo and change Italy.

IN RECENT months Italy has exhibited all the signs of the end of a regime. Despite claims from the Berlusconi camp that Italy has escaped the worst aspects of the current global crisis – because of the nature of its banking system and the commitment of many Italians to save rather than borrow – the economy has long been stagnating. Berlusconi’s economic dreams no longer convince, and the government is losing direction and purpose. While he continues to project an image of political toughness – from his appearance alongside long-term ally Vladimir Putin to his endorsement of Sarah Palin’s Tea Party movement (on account of its low-tax policy, hard line on immigration and appeal to women voters) – there is more than a hint of strain in the effort, suggesting that any genuine recovery of his former strength will be very difficult. But anyone expecting Berlusconi to go quietly – let alone to be called to account in a process of constitutional reform and widening institutional transparency – is likely to be profoundly disappointed.

In the absence of a strong reform movement, the probability is that Silvio Berlusconi, in setting out his own exit strategy, will continue to be a decisive force in shaping Italian politics for a while to come. He is increasingly dependent on the Northern League, whose intolerance of immigration is beginning to win substantial support among traditional working-class voters in the north while consolidating its core support among small family businesses. The League’s agenda is likely to become even more authoritarian in the months before the next elections (likely to be held in spring 2011), and could still be a strong force in a future government.

Berlusconi has already demonstrated a willingness to use his vast media resources to defend his power-base – and history shows that he usually gets his way. At the same time, Italy’s deteriorating economy and deepening political crisis are shifting attention not only to who will succeed him but to how his own future will be resolved. Some deal will be agreed. But at what cost to Italy? •

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