At last Berlusconi has said he’ll step down. It should be a good day for Italian democracy. Except that – assuming he really does go – Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister will have been finally driven from office not for corruption, croneyism, tax evasion or colluding with the mafia; not for the conflict of interests between his media empire and his political position; not for having presided over years of economic stagnation, rising unemployment and crumbling public services, and otherwise generally enriching himself at (almost) everyone else’s expense; not for his outspoken xenophobia, sexism and homophobia; and not even for having sex with underage prostitutes; but because the EU, the IMF and the bond markets think he can't be trusted to push through the austerity regime they want Italy to enforce, which will almost certainly make everything even worse.
Under Italian law, an 'abrogative' referendum – which asks voters if they think a particular item of legislation should be repealed – can be called by anyone, subject to judicial approval and proof of popular support. Three of the proposals in the referendum held earlier this week came from the anti-corruption party Italia dei Valori (roughly ‘the Italy with Principles’), the other from a group campaigning against water privatisation. One of IdV’s proposals was also about water privatisation; the others concerned nuclear power and the ‘legitimate impediment’ law, passed last year, which allowed government ministers to say they were too busy to appear in court, however serious the charges.
On Sunday 13 February, more than a million Italians, most of them women, took to the streets to demand that Silvio Berlusconi resign. Their slogan was taken from Primo Levi: ‘If not now, when?’ Their theme song was Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’. The demonstrations (which took place in 231 Italian cities, as well as in Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Brussels) were organised, without official political backing, by a variety of groups including Il Popolo Viola (‘The Purple People’), a web-based youth network, established in December 2009 to campaign against Berlusconi and the political ‘caste’ governing Italy. Berlusconi’s resignation was not forthcoming. Instead, he looks set to be possibly the first prime minister of a democratic country to stand trial while still in office, charged with abuse of power and the ‘exploitation of underage prostitution’.[*] Berlusconi is still in a surprisingly strong position, domestically.
‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.
People ask us: Is this the end for Berlusconi? And we answer: No, it isn't. Not necessarily. And even if it were, it wouldn't be the end of Berlusconism as a fetishistic mass cult, an ideological current in Italian life and a certain way of using the media. The most likely outcome is Berlusconism without Berlusconi. His former allies who are strong-arming him into resigning as prime minister are preparing a continuation of Berlusconism by other means. Gianfranco Fini, the former neo-fascist who is now being idolised even by some left-wing amnesiacs, is yet another Man of Destiny pretending to have come to town this morning. People seem to forget that Fini is still the man who was in alliance with Berlusconi for 16 years;
What with the European Commission's inquiry into its alleged anti-competitive behaviour and the controversy surrounding its megalomaniac digital library plans, not to mention the fiasco of Google Buzz, the irritating and privacy-invading social networking package that's now unavoidable for anyone with a Gmail account, Google's been in need of some positive publicity. So in some ways, at least to the internet behemoth's PR department, the conviction yesterday of three executives for breaking Italian privacy laws must come as a relief: Google can for once cast themselves in their old and increasingly unconvincing roles of underdogs and good guys. They explain what happened on their blog:
San Gennaro (St Januarius) has a chapel in Naples Cathedral to himself, a church within a church, a bombastic Counter-Reformation affair of precious metals and rich marbles, encrusted with busts and frescoed to the rafters. The decoration celebrates his status as protector of Naples against pestilence, disaster and Vesuvius. The volcanic eruption on 16 December 1631 was the most severe since the one that entombed Pompeii. Since at least the 17th century, Neapolitans have been giving the saint three chances a year to prove himself, through the miraculous liquefaction of his blood, encased in two phials within an ornamental glass reliquary.
As if there weren't already enough reasons to think it a bad idea, Silvio Berlusconi has thrown his weight behind the campaign to install his old friend Tony Blair as the first president of the Council of Europe. It would be funny, if it weren't so depressing (and so depressingly unsurprising), that a demagogue of the right who absurdly claims to be the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy involving judges, politicians, journalists and anyone else he cares to name, should count a former British Labour prime minister among his allies rather than his opponents.
Yesterday's decision by Italy's constitutional court to revoke the prime minister's immunity from prosecution was unexpected, but with hindsight looks almost inevitable. The fundamental grounds for it are simple: according to Article 3 of the Italian Constitution, all citizens are equal before the law. Berlusconi's reaction was predictable: he says he's the victim of a left-wing conspiracy involving the courts, the media and even – a charge he hasn't dared level before – the president of the republic. The prime minister said he needed immunity in order to run the country. Since he can't have immunity, the logical upshot is that he can't run the country. But logic has never been Berlusconi's strong point.
I wonder if Silvio Berlusconi, for his next coup of reactionary lawmaking, is considering a repeal of the 1971 legalisation of divorce. Before 1971, marriage in Italy really was more or less a case of till death did them part, though not many people resorted to the methods of Marcello Mastroianni's character in Pietro Germi's 1961 black comedy, Divorzio all'italiana.
On Tuesday, the hapless leader of Italy’s centre-left opposition, Walter Veltroni, quit after his party was trounced in Sardinia’s gubernatorial election. The timing couldn’t have been better for the government, since Veltroni’s resignation pushed off the front pages the news that David Mills, the estranged husband of Britain’s Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, has been sentenced by a court in Milan to four and a half years in jail for taking bribes from the prime minister.