Europe is ill . How seriously, and why, are matters not always easy to judge. But among the symptoms three are conspicuous, and inter-related. The first, and most familiar, is the degenerative drift of democracy across the continent, of which the structure of the EU is at once cause and consequence. The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come, has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers. But the Union is not an excrescence on member states that might otherwise be healthy enough. It reflects, as much as it deepens, long-term trends within them. At national level, virtually everywhere, executives domesticate or manipulate legislatures with greater ease; parties lose members; voters lose belief that they count, as political choices narrow and promises of difference on the hustings dwindle or vanish in office.
With this generalised involution has come a pervasive corruption of the political class, a topic on which political science, talkative enough on what in the language of accountants is termed the democratic deficit of the Union, typically falls silent. The forms of this corruption have yet to find a systematic taxonomy. There is pre-electoral corruption: the funding of persons or parties from illegal sources – or legal ones – against the promise, explicit or tacit, of future favours. There is post-electoral corruption: the use of office to obtain money by malversation of revenues, or kickbacks on contracts. There is purchase of voices or votes in legislatures. There is straightforward theft from the public purse. There is faking of credentials for political gain. There is enrichment from public office after the event, as well as during or before it. The panorama of this malavita is impressive. A fresco of it could start with Helmut Kohl, ruler of Germany for sixteen years, who amassed some two million Deutschmarks in slush funds from illegal donors whose names, once he was exposed, he refused to reveal for fear of the favours they had received coming to light. Across the Rhine, Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest, once his immunity came to an end. Neither suffered any penalty. These were the two most powerful politicians of their time in Europe. A glance at the scene since then is enough to dispel any illusion that they were unusual.
In Germany, Gerhard Schröder’s government guaranteed a billion-euro loan to Gazprom for the building of a Baltic pipeline within a few weeks of his stepping down as chancellor and arriving on the Gazprom payroll at a salary larger than he received for governing the country. Since his departure, Angela Merkel has seen two presidents of the Republic in succession forced to resign under a cloud: Horst Köhler, a former chief of the IMF, for explaining that the Bundeswehr contingent in Afghanistan was protecting German commercial interests; and Christian Wulff, the former Christian Democrat chief in Lower Saxony, over a questionable loan for his house from a friendly businessman. Two leading ministers, one of defence, the other of education, had to go when they were stripped of their doctorates – an important credential for a political career in the Federal Republic – for intellectual theft. When the latter, Annette Schavan, an intimate of Merkel (who expressed full confidence in her), was still clinging to office, the Bild-Zeitung remarked that to have a minister for education who faked her research was like having a minister of finance with a secret bank account in Switzerland.
No sooner said, than seen. In France, the Socialist minister for the budget, plastic surgeon Jérôme Cahuzac, whose brief was to uphold fiscal probity and equity, was discovered to have somewhere between €600,000 and €15 million in hidden deposits in Switzerland and Singapore. Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, stands accused by convergent witnesses of receiving some $20 million from Gaddafi for the electoral campaign that took him to the presidency. Christine Lagarde, his finance minister, who now heads the IMF, is under interrogation for her role in the award of €420 million in ‘compensation’ to Bernard Tapie, a well-known crook with a prison record, latterly a friend of Sarkozy. Nonchalant adjacency to crime is bipartisan. François Hollande, current president of the Republic, sat pillion to trysts with his mistress in the flat of a moll of a Corsican gangster killed in a shoot-out on the island last year.
In Britain, at about the same time, former premier Blair was advising Rebekah Brooks, facing jail on five counts of criminal conspiracy (‘Keep strong and definitely sleeping pills. It will pass. Tough up’), and urging her to ‘publish a Hutton-style report’, as he had done to sanitise any part his administration may have had in the death of a whistleblower on his war in Iraq: an invasion from which he went on to net – of course, for his Faith Foundation – assorted tips and deals around the world, prominent among them cash from a South Korean oil company run by a convicted felon with interests in Iraq and the feudal dynasty of Kuwait. What recompense he may have earned further east for profuse counsel to the Nazarbaev dictatorship remains to be seen (‘Kazakhstan’s achievements are wonderful. However, Mr President, you outlined new heights in your message to the nation.’ Ad litteram). At home, in an exchange of favours about which he lied without compunction to Parliament, his palm was greased with £1 million into party coffers from racing car magnate Bernie Ecclestone, currently under indictment in Bavaria for bribes to the tune of €33 million. In the culture of New Labour, leading figures in Blair’s circle, cabinet ministers one day – Byers, Hoon, Hewitt – could offer themselves for sale the next. In the same years, indiscriminately of party, the House of Commons was exposed as a cesspit of petty defalcations of taxpayers’ money.
In Ireland, meanwhile, the Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, having channelled more than €400,000 in unexplained payments before becoming taioseach, voted himself the highest salary of any premier in Europe – €310,000, more even than the US president – a year before having to quit in obloquy for all-round dishonesty. In Spain, the current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, heading a government of the right, has been caught red-handed in receipt of kickbacks on construction and other deals totalling a quarter of a million euros over a decade, passed to him by Luis Bárcenas. His party’s treasurer for twenty years, Bárcenas is now under arrest for accumulating a hoard of €48 million in undeclared Swiss accounts. The handwritten ledgers detailing his transfers to Rajoy and other People’s Party notables – including Rodrigo Rato, another former head of the IMF – have featured in abundant facsimile in the Spanish press. Once the scandal broke, Rajoy texted Bárcenas in words virtually identical to those of Blair to Brooks: ‘Luis, I understand. Stay strong. I’ll call you tomorrow. A hug.’ Brazening out a scandal in which 85 per cent of the Spanish public believes he is lying, he sits tight in the Moncloa Palace.
Over in Greece, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, successively minister of the interior, of defence and of development for Pasok, who once came within a whisker of leading Greek social democracy, was less lucky: condemned last autumn to twenty years in prison for a formidable career of shakedowns and money-laundering. Across the water, Tayyip Erdoğan, long hailed by the European media and intellectual establishment as Turkey’s greatest democratic statesman, whose conduct virtually entitled the country to honorary membership of the EU ante diem, has shown that he is worthy of inclusion in the ranks of Union leadership in another way: in one taped conversation, instructing his son where to hide tens of millions in cash, in another lifting the price of a hefty bribe on a construction contract. Three cabinet ministers fell after similar disclosures, before Erdoğan purged the police force and judiciary to make sure matters went no further. As he did so, the European Commission released its first official report on corruption in the Union, whose extent the commissioner who authored it described as ‘breath-taking’: at a low estimate, costing the EU as much as the entire Union budget, some €120 billion a year – the real figure being ‘probably much higher’. Prudently, the report covered only member states. The EU itself, its entire Commission within recent memory forced to resign under a cloud, was excluded.
Commonplace in a Union that presents itself as a moral tutor to the world, the pollution of power by money and fraud follows from the leaching of substance or involvement in democracy. Elites freed from either real division above, or significant accountability below, can afford to enrich themselves without distraction or retribution. Exposure ceases to matter very much, as impunity becomes the rule. Like bankers, leading politicians do not go to prison. Of the fauna above, only an elderly Greek has ever suffered that indignity. But corruption is not just a function of the decline of the political order. It is also, of course, a symptom of the economic regime that has taken hold of Europe since the 1980s. In a neoliberal universe, where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes, more straightforwardly than ever before, the measure of all things. If hospitals, schools and prisons can be privatised as enterprises for profit, why not political office too?
Beyond the cultural fallout of neoliberalism, however, lies its impact as a socio-economic system – the third and, in popular experience, much the most acute of the agues afflicting Europe. That the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008 was the outcome of decades of financial deregulation and credit expansion, even its architects now more or less admit – see Alan Greenspan. Intertwined across the Atlantic, European banks and real estate operations were as deeply involved in the debacle as their American counterparts. In the EU, however, this general crisis was overdetermined by another peculiar to the Union, the distortions created by a single currency imposed on widely differing national economies, driving the most vulnerable of these to the edge of bankruptcy once the overall crisis struck. The remedy for them? At the insistence of Berlin and Brussels, not just a classic stabilisation regime of the interwar Churchill-Brüning type, cutting back public expenditure, but a fiscal compact setting a uniform limit of 3 per cent to any deficit as a constitutional provision, effectively enshrining a wall-eyed economic fixation as a basic principle of the Rechtsstaat, on a par with freedom of expression, equality before the law, habeas corpus, division of powers and the rest. Were it not for their share in renditions for torture yesterday, it would be difficult to find a more pointed example of the regard in which these principles are held by the oligarchies of the EU today.
Economically, the gains yielded by integration were from the start oversold. In the spring of 2008, the most careful estimate, by Andrea Boltho and Barry Eichengreen, two distinguished economists of impeccably pro-European outlook, concluded that the Common Market may have increased growth by 3 to 4 per cent of the GDP of the EEC across the whole period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, and the Single European Act by another 1 per cent, while the positive impact of monetary union had to date been negligible – making for a grand total of perhaps a 5 per cent increment in GDP over half a century.That was before the onset of the crisis. What is the balance sheet since? By the end of 2013, five years into the crisis, the GDP of the Eurozone had not yet recovered to the level of 2007. Nearly a quarter of its youth are unemployed. In Spain and Greece, the figures are a catastrophic 57 and 58 per cent respectively. Even in Germany, piling up trade surpluses year after year and widely touted as the success story of the period, investment has been among the least in the G7 economies, and the proportion of low-wage workers (those earning less than two-thirds of median income) the highest of any state in Western Europe. Such are the latest readings of monetary union. The quacks of austerity have bled the patient, not restored it to health.
In this setting , one country is widely viewed as the most acute of all cases of European dysfunction. Since the introduction of the single currency, Italy has posted the worst economic record of any state in the Union: twenty years of virtually unbroken stagnation, at a growth rate well below that of Greece or Spain. Its public debt is over 130 per cent of GDP. Yet this is not a country of small or medium size in the recently acquired periphery of the Union. It is a founder member of the Six, with a population comparable to that of Britain, and an economy half as large again as that of Spain. After Germany, its manufacturing base is the second biggest in Europe, where it is runner-up too in the export of capital goods. Its treasury issues form the third largest sovereign bond market in the world. Nearly half of its public debt is held abroad: the comparable figure for Japan is under 10 per cent. In its combination of weight and fragility, Italy is the real weak link in the EU, at which it could theoretically break.
So far it is also, not coincidentally, the one country where disillusionment with the voiding of democratic forms has produced, not just numbed indifference, but an active revolt that has shaken its establishment to the core, transforming the political landscape. Protest movements of one kind or another have emerged in other states of the Union, but hitherto none approaches the novelty or the success of the Five Star wave in Italy as a rebellion at the polls. So too, in turn, Italy offers the most familiar spectacle of all the continent’s theatres of corruption, and its most celebrated embodiment in the billionaire who has ruled the country for nearly half the life of the Second Republic, about whom more words have been spilt than about all his competitors put together. Reflections on the pass Italy has reached inevitably start with Silvio Berlusconi. That he stands out among his peers in the interlocking of power and money is beyond question. But the way in which he has done so can be obscured by the clamour of the foreign press in pursuit of him, thunderous denunciations from the Economist and Financial Times in the lead.
Two things have made Berlusconi unusual. The first is that he reversed the typical path from office to profit by amassing a fortune before achieving office, which he then used not so much to increase his wealth as to protect it, and himself, from multiple criminal charges for the ways he acquired it. The second is that the principal, though far from only, source of his wealth is a television and publicity empire that furnished him with an apparatus of power independent of office, and which once he entered the electoral arena could be converted into a propaganda machine and an instrument of government. Political connections – ties to the Socialist Party in Milan, and its chieftain Craxi – were crucial to his economic ascent, and in particular to his construction of a national network for his television channels. But while he developed considerable skills, essentially of communication and manoeuvre, as a politician, in outlook he remained first and last a businessman, for whom power meant safety and glamour, rather than action or project. Although he expressed his admiration for Thatcher and billed himself a champion of the market and economic freedom, the immobilism of his centre-right coalitions never differed greatly from that of the centre-left coalitions of the same period.
That this is the real grievance against him of neoliberal opinion in the Anglosphere can be seen from its treatment of the two symmetrical emblems of corruption at the head of states to the west and east of Italy. For years, Erdoğan – a close friend of Berlusconi – has been the recipient of fulsome interviews, profiles and reports in the Financial Times and elsewhere, presenting him as the enlightened architect of a new Turkish democracy and a vital bridge between Europe and Asia, to be welcomed with all due speed into the Union. Unlike Berlusconi, however, whose rule was anodyne in matters of civil liberties, Erdoğan was and is a menace to these. Yet as a Turkish boom spiked with privatisations took off, the jailing of journalists, killing of protesters, rigging of trials, brutal intimidation of opposition – not to speak of wholesale peculation – of his regime counted for little. Even when the extent of its thuggery and corruption could no longer be ignored, details of the scandals engulfing it have generally been kept to a minimum, and blame quickly shifted to the EU for having failed to extend a redemptive embrace with sufficient dispatch. After the Erdoğan tapes broke, the Frankfurter Allgemeine remarked that, in any normally functioning democracy, there was enough evidence ten times over to force the entire cabinet to go. Not a comparable whisper in the FT. Much the same remark could be made of Rajoy and his confederates in Spain, where the smoking gun is actually more obvious than in Berlusconi’s labyrinth of malfeasance. But Rajoy, unlike Berlusconi, is a reliable intendant of the neoliberal regime: no call for special supplements in the Economist to retail his misdoings, about which it takes care to say as little as possible, along with Brussels and Berlin. ‘EU leaders and officials have been unusually tight-mouthed over the scandal, given the importance of Spain to the Eurozone,’ comments Gavin Hewitt, the BBC’s Europe editor. ‘German chancellor Angela Merkel and others have placed a lot of faith in Mr Rajoy, who is regarded as a safe pair of hands for painful reforms aimed at reviving Spain’s economy.’ Berlusconi would pay for lack of such confidence.
In the hour of Berlusconi’s triumph in the spring of 2008, when he won his third and most decisive electoral victory, poor opinions of him abroad mattered little to him. The centre-right front he had organised and reorganised since 1994 – now composed of the People of Freedom, a merger of his previous party with that of his long-standing ally, the former fascist Gianfranco Fini, plus the Northern League of Umberto Bossi, which maintained its separate base and identity – held a commanding majority in both houses of Parliament. In its first months of office, one step along Thatcher/Blair lines was taken, the initial instalment of a set of changes, starting with primary schools and ending with universities, that cut expenditure on the education system by some €8 billion in the interests of economy and competition: reducing teacher numbers, imposing short-term contracts, bringing business onto boards, quantifying research assessments. But this was the extent of the reforming zeal of the government. Uppermost on its political agenda was ad personam legislation to shield Berlusconi from the criminal charges still pending against him – many had been voided by spinning them out to statutes of limitation, others by decriminalisation. In 2003, his government had passed a law granting immunity from prosecution to the top five offices of state, struck down by the Constitutional Court six months later. In the summer of 2008, he returned to the attack with a law presented by his right-hand man at the Ministry of Justice, the Sicilian lawyer Angelino Alfano, suspending trials for the top four offices of state.
A few months later, the financial tempest across the Atlantic hit Europe, first in Ireland, then in Greece. In Italy, the Second Republic had from the beginning been an economic dud, despite the best efforts of centre-left premiers to gin it (Giuliano Amato had cut and privatised, Romano Prodi helped the country into the straitjacket of the Stability Pact). Italian growth rates sank through the 1990s. After 2000, they stagnated at an average of 0.25 per cent of GDP a year. Within a year of Berlusconi’s re-election in 2008, spreads were already starting to widen between German and Italian bond yields. By 2009 the recession was deeper than in any other country in the Eurozone, GDP dropping more than five percentage points. To keep financial markets at bay, successive emergency packages slashed Italy’s budgetary deficit, but with interest rates rising on the third highest public debt in the world, by late 2010 the government was nearing the end of its economic tether.
Politically, it had fared little better. From March to October 2009, headlines were dominated by sensational revelations of Berlusconi’s sexual extravagances, giving garish colour to Giovanni Sartori’s prophetic description of his rule – borrowing a term from Weber – as a sultanate.Always given to boasting of his prowess in the bedroom, with hubris now inciting him to defy age too, he cast away elementary prudence, dotting party lists with soubrettes and dallying with minors, to the point of provoking a public break with his wife, Veronica Lario. Soon he was receiving prostitutes in his Roman residence. Disappointed at not getting a building permit promised her in Bari, one of them recounted her visits. In his palatial villa in Arcore outside Milan, orgies were staged in the style of updated 18th-century fantasies, women dressed as nuns – also now nurses and policewomen – cavorting and disrobing for collective possession. When one of the participants, a Moroccan youngster, was subsequently arrested for theft in Milan, Berlusconi rang to secure her release as a niece of Mubarak. Since she was under eighteen, judicial proceedings against Berlusconi followed. Though not as damaging as the debacle which soon engulfed Dominique Strauss-Kahn, president of the IMF and front-runner for the French presidency, Berlusconi was weakened by the degradation of his image. But for the time being he survived.
A more serious threat to his position came from another direction. Out of over-confidence, born of electoral success, he lost a sense of political limits, gratuitously humiliating Fini, who had thought to be his successor and was now Speaker in Parliament. By the summer of 2010, realising he could no longer expect to be the natural heir of the centre-right, and warming to opposition flattery that he might even prove the best leader of a responsible centre-left, Fini had defected. Taking with him enough deputies to deprive the government of a stable majority, he narrowly failed to bring it down in the autumn. By the spring of 2011, voters too were deserting the government, Berlusconi losing control even of such a stronghold as Milan.
Over that summer, as the crisis of the Eurozone intensified, with Greece approaching default, the pressure on Italy from the bond markets increased. Germany, flanked by France and the European Central Bank, now made little secret of its determination to break any resistance to draconian austerity measures, and eliminate leaders who hesitated to implement them, in Athens or Rome. In August, Trichet and Draghi – outgoing and incoming presidents of the ECB – dispatched a virtual ultimatum to Berlusconi. Two months later, Papandreou was forced at an EU summit to accept further savage cuts in public spending and to pledge sweeping privatisation. Panicking at the tide of popular anger over these – the president of Greece was driven from the viewing-stand in Thessalonika on National Day – he announced a referendum on them, and was summoned to Cannes forthwith by Merkel and Sarkozy and told to cancel any such thing. A week later, he was gone. Within three days, Berlusconi had followed him.
The dynamics of Berlusconi’s fall were, however, not the same. In Greece, Papandreou was presiding over widespread immiseration at the behest of Berlin, Paris and Frankfurt, which had aroused massive social protest. Up until his sudden idea of a referendum, he had been a perfectly acceptable instrument of the will of the Union – a disposition that the speed with which he submitted to Merkel and Sarkozy and withdrew his proposal promptly confirmed. He quit because his position had become untenable internally. In Italy, there was neither ongoing pauperisation nor popular mobilisation. Berlusconi’s majority in the Chamber was by now razor thin, and some of his deputies were getting cold feet at the rise in spreads. But he remained in full control of the Senate, and had yet to be knocked out in the courts. His internal position was substantially stronger than Papandreou’s. In the EU at large, however, the hostility to him was much greater, as a long-standing embarrassment to its political class; and the resolve of Berlin and Frankfurt to be rid of him, as an obstacle to the requisite purging of the Italian economic and social order, more unrelenting.
For his ouster , however, a mechanism was needed to connect the erosion of his position at home, still not complete, with the absolute aversion to him abroad. To his misfortune, this was ready and primed. Less noticed than other mutations wrought by the Second Republic, there had been a steady increase in the role of the presidency in the political affairs of Italy. Under the reign of Christian Democracy in the First Republic, when one party always dominated the legislature, this largely ceremonial office had rarely been of much consequence. But once rival political coalitions jousted for power in the Second Republic, a new space of manoeuvre opened up for the presidency. Scalfaro – the incumbent of the Quirinale from 1992 to 1999 – had been the first to make use of this, refusing any dissolution of Parliament when Berlusconi lost his first majority in 1994, instead easing a centre-left patchwork into office, to give it time to assemble its forces for a victory at the polls under Prodi the following year.
Now the president was, like Scalfaro, a former minister of the interior, Giorgio Napolitano. Berlusconi had backed Napolitano’s election to the post in 2006, and had reason to think he had made a sensible choice in helping this veteran of the traditional political class into the Quirinale. An Italian Vicar of Bray, Napolitano had over a long career exhibited one fixed principle, adhesion to whatever world-political trend appeared to be a winner at the time. The incipit of a long sequence came in his student days, when he joined the Gruppo Universitario Fascista, at a time when Italy was dispatching troops to join the Nazi attack on Russia.Once fascism fell, the young Napolitano opted for the coming force of communism. Joining the PCI in late 1945, he rose rapidly through its ranks, reaching the Central Committee in just over a decade. When Russian troops and tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolt in 1956, he applauded. ‘The Soviet intervention has made a decisive contribution, not only to preventing Hungary from collapsing into chaos and counter-revolution, and defending the military and strategic interests of the USSR, but to saving the peace of the world,’ he told the Party Congress that November. Greeting the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from Russia in 1964, he declared: ‘Only foolish and factious commentators can evoke the spectre of Stalinism, overlooking the way Solzhenitsyn pushed matters to a breaking-point.’ By this time, he was the right-hand man of Giorgio Amendola, after the death of Togliatti the most formidable figure in the PCI. Like his patron, he was a firm disciplinarian of dissent within it, voting without hesitation for the eradication from the party of the Manifesto group for speaking out of turn against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. With slots in both the secretariat and political bureau, he was widely viewed as the next leader of the PCI.
In the event, the post went to Enrico Berlinguer as a less divisive figure. But Napolitano remained a leading ornament of the party as it shifted towards Eurocommunism. In the late 1970s, he was picked as the PCI’s first envoy to reassure the United States of its Atlantic reliability, in due course becoming ‘Kissinger’s favourite Communist’, in the satisfied words of the New York Times. By the 1980s, the transfer of allegiance to a new suzerain was complete. The Third Reich a bad memory, the USSR in decline, the US was now the power to cultivate. Responsible for foreign relations of the PCI, he would take care to massage relations with Washington long after the party had vanished. Once president, he went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Bush and Obama alike.
At home, the failure of the PCI’s bid to reach a ‘historic compromise’ with Christian Democracy that would have given it entrance into government, and the rise instead – amid increasingly flagrant corruption – of Craxi’s Socialist Party as the key partner of the DC, led Berlinguer to make a turn to the left. Denouncing the monetised degeneration of the political system, he issued a ringing call for public life to be cleaned up. Napolitano responded angrily, attacking him for sectarian isolationism and ‘empty invective’. Relations had always been cool between the two men. But more than personal rivalry was stake. Napolitano headed the most right-wing current in the PCI of the time, miglioristi who felt a certain affinity to Craxi and did not want to see hostilities with him. Their principal base was Milan, where Craxi’s machine dominated the city. There in the mid-1980s they published a journal, Il Moderno, not only subsidised by Berlusconi, but hailing his revolutionary achievement in modernising the media and making Milan the television capital of Italy. This was in 1986, when Craxi was prime minister. A court would later find Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest guilty of illegally financing the miglioristi. In February, in the run-up to an anti-nuclear referendum in Italy, the PCI newspaper declined a pro-nuclear article by Giovanni Battista Zorzoli, one of Napolitano’s followers. Furious, Napolitano demanded the head of the editor. By 1993 Zorzoli was in handcuffs, sentenced to four and a half years in prison for corruption when he was a senior executive of Italy’s state energy company.
Not long afterwards, Napolitano became minister of the interior in the centre-left government of 1996. It was the first time anyone from the left had ever been in charge of this department. The involvement of the Italian police and intelligence apparatuses in the so-called strategia della tensione – a series of bombings from the massacre of Piazza Fontana in Milan in 1969 to that of Bologna railway station in 1980 – had long been attested, but never investigated. Any nervousness that the arrival of a one-time Communist at the ministry might have caused was soon dispelled. Napolitano assured his subordinates he was not ‘going to look for skeletons in the cupboard’. No untoward disclosures marred his incumbency. He was made a life senator in 2005. Becoming president of the Republic a year later, he would publicly lament that Craxi – who died in Tunisian exile, after being condemned in absentia to 27 years in prison for monumental corruption – had been treated so unfairly, going out of his way to praise his constructive role as a statesman.
He did not have the same regard for Berlusconi, viewing him with benign condescension – if also some justice – as not really a politician at all, in the sense that the eminences of the First Republic had been. The two men could anyway not have been more opposed in style, Napolitano’s ceremonious propriety a studied contrast to Berlusconi’s off-colour swagger. But they shared a common background in the nexus of ties and sympathies around Craxi in Milan, and a common interest in stabilising what each saw as the potential gains of the Second Republic: a bipolar political system along Anglo-Saxon lines, confined to a centre-right and a centre-left, cleansed of hostility to the market and its transatlantic guardian. For their own reasons each, too, feared the persistence of prosecutors in dredging up charges against the most popular leader in the country, and the ressentiment of irresponsible minorities in harping on these.
For Berlusconi these were, of course, existential threats. For Napolitano they were simply divisive, just as Berlinguer’s moralism had been, recklessly rocking the boat of the moderate consensus that the country required. He was more than willing to help Berlusconi protect himself from such troubles, signing into law without hesitation the Lodo Alfano of 2008 granting Berlusconi as prime minister and himself as president immunity from prosecution; and when this was ruled unconstitutional, rubber-stamping with equal speed the substitute passed in 2010, legittimo impedimento allowing ministers to avoid trials by invoking their pressing duties as public servants, which was ruled in its turn unconstitutional in 2011. Napolitano was publicly criticised for his unseemly approval of the first by Ciampi, his predecessor in the presidency, and was under no obligation to wave through either: rather the reverse, as the legal outcome of each was to show. Napolitano’s actions, however, accorded with Berlusconi’s expectations of the modus vivendi between them, on which basis he had backed him for president. A further pointed expression of that understanding came when Fini’s defection deprived Berlusconi’s government of a majority in the Chamber, and the opposition tabled a vote of no confidence, with the votes in hand to bring the government down. In 2008 Prodi had been in a similar situation after Berlusconi had bought enough votes in the Senate to topple him, an episode for which he is currently under indictment for paying just one senator €3 million to turn his coat, a bribe to which the recipient has confessed. Then, Napolitano lost little time – less than a fortnight – in using his presidential prerogative to dissolve Parliament and call new elections, which produced an avalanche for Berlusconi. Now, however, Napolitano persuaded Fini to stay his hand for more than a month while a budgetary law was passed, allowing Berlusconi time to purchase the handful of deputies needed to restore his majority.
This was , however, the last favour Napolitano would grant. He was preparing to take matters into his own hands. In the spring of 2011, the government announced that it was not joining the American-powered attack on Libya, to which the Northern League was flatly opposed, threatening to bring it down if it did so. Napolitano knew better: expectations in Washington were more important than niceties of the constitution. Without any vote in Parliament, or even any debate in it, he bounced Italy into war by extracting ex-Communist support for the dispatch of its air force to bomb a neighbour with which it had signed a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Military Alliance, ratified by an overwhelming majority in the Chamber – including the ex-Communists – just two years previously.
By the summer, emboldened by increasing flattery of himself in the media as the rock of the Republic, and with the encouragement of Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt, he had decided to dispose of Berlusconi. The key to removing him smoothly was finding a replacement to satisfy these decisive partners, and the business establishment in Italy. Happily, the ideal figure was to hand: Mario Monti, the former EU commissioner, member of the Bilderberg Group and Trilateral Commission, senior adviser to Goldman Sachs and now president of Bocconi University. Monti had for some time been looking forward to just the situation which now presented itself. ‘Italian governments can take tough decisions,’ he confided to the Economist in 2005, ‘only if two conditions are met: there must be both a visible emergency and strong pressure from outside.’ At the time, he lamented, ‘such a moment of truth is lacking.’ Now it had come.
As early as June or July, in complete secrecy, Napolitano readied Monti to take over the government. In the same period, he commissioned the head of Italy’s largest banking group, Corrado Passera, to produce a confidential economic plan for the country. Passera was a former aide to Berlusconi’s arch political enemy and business rival Carlo De Benedetti, owner of La Repubblica and L’Espresso, who was privy to Napolitano’s moves. In urgent italics, Passera’s 196-page document proposed shock therapy: €100 billion worth of privatisations, housing tax, capital levies, a hike in VAT. Napolitano, on the phone to Merkel and no doubt Draghi, now had the man and the plan to eject Berlusconi ready. Monti had never run for election, and though a seat in Parliament was not required for investiture as prime minister, it would help to have one.
There was no time to waste: on 9 November, plucking him from Bocconi, Napolitano appointed Monti a senator for life, to the applause of the world’s financial press. Under threat of destruction by the bond markets should he resist, Berlusconi capitulated, and within a week Monti was sworn in as the country’s new ruler, at the head of an unelected cabinet of bankers, businessmen and technocrats. The operation that had installed him is an expressive illustration of what democratic procedures and the rule of law can mean in today’s Europe. It was entirely unconstitutional. The Italian president is supposed to be the impartial guardian of a parliamentary order, who does not interfere with its decisions save where they breach the constitution – as this one had signally failed to do. He is not empowered to conspire, behind the back of an elected premier, with individuals of his choice, not even in Parliament, to form a government to his liking. The corruption of business, bureaucracy and politics in Italy was now compounded by corruption of the constitution.
At the time, what had taken place that summer behind the presidential arras remained hidden. It would come to light only this year from the mouth of Monti himself, a naif in such matters, to the spluttering denials of Napolitano.Meanwhile, establishment reaction to the new government ranged from relief to elation. Here at last – in the widespread view of commentators in and beyond the country – was a second chance for Italy to turn over the new leaf that had been missed after the fall of the First Republic. Finally, an honest and competent government was at the helm, not only committed to serious reform of so much that was wrong in Italy – rigid labour markets, unaffordable pensions, nepotistic universities, corporative restrictions on services, lack of industrial competition, insufficient privatisation, legal gridlock, fiscal evasion – but capable of mastering the financial storms now buffeting it. A new Second Republic, the real thing, could now arise after twenty years of masquerade. Steep cuts in public expenditure, tough tax measures and the beginnings of changes to the disastrous labour law of the 1970s were first, welcome steps to restore confidence in the country.
Viewed from another angle, there were indeed similarities between the conjuncture of the early 1990s when Ciampi, then governor of the Bank of Italy, was summoned to hold the fort as premier at the height of the Tangentopoli crisis. But they were not all reassuring. Monti’s administration resembled Ciampi’s in composition and intention. But much had changed in the interim, not least in the milieu from which leading figures of the new order – Monti and his guarantor in Frankfurt, Draghi – came. In 1994 Berlusconi had presented himself as an innovator from a business background whose victory would bury the corruption and disorder of the political class of the First Republic, while in reality he owed his fortune overwhelmingly to it. In 2011 the crisis gripping Italy and the Eurozone had been triggered by a massive wave of financial speculation and derivative manipulation on both sides of the Atlantic. No operator was more notorious for its part in these than the very company on whose payroll both Monti and Draghi had figured. Goldman Sachs, amply earning its sobriquet in America of the ‘vampire squid’, had seconded the falsification of Greek public accounts, and been charged with fraud by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, paying half a billion dollars to settle the case out of court. To expect a clean break with the past from its functionaries was only a little more realistic than to believe the patronage of Craxi would leave no mark on Berlusconi.
Other reminders of the past were no less striking. In the summer of 2012 it emerged that Napolitano was intervening to block potential interrogation of Nicola Mancino, Christian Democrat minister of the interior in 1992 when the Palermo magistrate Paolo Borsellino was assassinated by the mafia. Mancino was one of four ministers of the interior – Scalfaro had been another – in monthly receipt of slush funds from the secret service, SISDE. Mancino’s denial that he had met Borsellino shortly before his death, despite evidence to the contrary, had never been cleared up, and a new official investigation into links between the state and the mafia was underway, which threatened to confront him with two other ministers of the period who gave him the lie. In great agitation, he telephoned the Quirinale and pleaded with Napolitano’s right-hand man on legal affairs, Loris D’Ambrosio, for protection. Far from being rebuffed, he was told the president was very concerned for him. In due course Napolitano himself rang Mancino, unaware that the latter’s phone was being tapped as part of the investigation.
When transcripts of the exchanges between Mancino and D’Ambrosio were published in the press, together with news that tapes of the president’s own conversations wth Mancino were in the possession of the investigating magistrate, Napolitano invoked absolute immunity for his office and, Nixon-style, demanded that the tapes be destroyed. Borsellino’s brother Salvatore called for his impeachment; since an obstruction of justice was patently involved, in the United States there would have been grounds for that. In Italy such an outcome was unthinkable. The political class and media closed ranks immediately around the president, as they had done when Scalfaro used his major-domo to stifle the SISDE scandal. Napolitano’s aide, the Ehrlichman of the affair, expired of a heart attack at the height of the uproar. As so often, Marco Travaglio, arguably Europe’s greatest journalist, was the only one to call the facts by name; in his book Viva il Re!, published last year, he drew up a comprehensive indictment of Napolitano’s record in office, across six hundred pages of damning documentation. Elsewhere, in face of the danger to his position, the chorus of sycophancy around the president – whose volume had been building for some time – reached a near hysterical crescendo.
Meanwhile Monti – greeted with enthusiasm at the outset, the FT gushing over ‘Super Mario’ – was proving a disappointment. Installed with the reluctant assent of the centre-right and centre-left alike, his room for initiative was limited, since neither bloc was committed to him and the base of each restive with the arrangement. But it soon became clear his remedies were not bringing any recovery. Under what an Italian critic would dub his ‘austeritarian’ regime, Monti’s combination of higher taxes and lower spending could reduce the deficit and bring down spreads, but it intensified the recession. Consumption fell, youth unemployment soared. Structural reforms, as the European Commisson and ECB understand them, fizzled. In 2012, GDP shrank by 2.4 per cent. Politically, there was little to be gained by continuing to prop up what had become a thoroughly unpopular government. At the end of the year the centre-right pulled out and Napolitano was reluctantly forced to dissolve Parliament, maintaining Monti in office as placeholder until elections were held.
Polls had for some time indicated that the centre-left held a steady lead in voter intentions and was poised to avenge its humiliation in 2008. Monti had proved a flop. Berlusconi was increasingly discredited and the centre-right coalition had split three ways. Not only had Fini broken with Berlusconi, but Bossi had also parted company with him, refusing to lend support to the Monti government before himself being engulfed in a corruption scandal and sidelined in a much weakened League. By the autumn, the three scattered parts of the former coalition were attracting scarcely more than a quarter of the electorate.
The centre-left, though itself far from flourishing, was in better shape. The renamed Democratic Party, born from a merger between the remnants of what had once been Italian Communism and a wing of Christian Democracy, had performed disastrously in 2008 under its picayune leader Walter Veltroni – in Napolitano’s fond eyes, ‘Obama ante litteram’. After Veltroni stepped down, the PD acquired a new leader, Pierluigi Bersani, from the ranks of the Emilian administrators of the former PCI, and a change of image for the better, from the vapid to the stolid. Without being inspiring, Bersani’s leadership at least prevented any further fall in support for the party, leaving it at a fairly stable level in the opinion polls, well ahead of the centre-right. In the autumn of 2012, challenged by the youthful mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who had made a name for himself by calling for the entire older generation of politicians to be broken up in the junkyard, Bersani comfortably defeated him in the party primaries, on a substantial turnout that raised the standing of the PD, increasing its lead in the polls.
A wild card remained. Three years earlier, the comedian Beppe Grillo had launched a movement against the political establishment which had scored some successes in local elections. It was not clear how seriously it should be taken. But since nothing like it existed anywhere else in Europe, and there was no precedent to judge it by, it could not be discounted. Grillo had started as a stand-up comic in cabarets of the 1970s, graduating to popular television shows whose political edge gradually sharpened. In 1986, after joking that at a banquet for Craxi in Beijing one of his lieutenants asked him in bewilderment, ‘If everyone here is a socialist, who can they be stealing from?’, Grillo was taken off the public channels. It was not his only prevision of what was to come. In the 1990s, he increasingly took to theatres and squares for monologues with a strong environmental cast, raking the innumerable scandals of the period with a combination of crude profanity and blistering wit.
His audiences grew, and then leapt when he started to use the internet as an alternative medium for scathing demolitions of the ruling order and its personnel – centre-right and centre-left, television and press alike. His blog became a wild-fire success. Modern Slaves, a book drawing on readers’ responses to it, broadened his targets to the fate of casual labour in Italy. By this time he was working closely with a software specialist, Gianroberto Casaleggio, and in 2009 the two launched the Five Star Movement as an uprising against the political system. The stars stood for the key issues they intended to raise: water (under threat of privatisation), environment, transport, connectivity and development. Candidates of the M5S who ran for election had to pledge themselves – uniquely anywhere in the world – not to appear on television, and if they were elected, to reduce their parliamentary salaries to the median wage, assigning the rest to public purposes. Grillo himself was disqualified from standing for Parliament by a conviction for manslaughter in his early thirties, when his jeep slid off an icy road into a ravine, killing three of his passengers. But he was not disqualified from campaigning. Travelling round the country on a Tsunami Tour of some eighty cities, his pugnacious grizzled mane now familiar to all, he attacked not only the ‘two castes’ – politicians and journalists – of Italy, but the European bureaucratic and banking establishment at large, and its order of neoliberal austerity and single currency. Large crowds, of the curious or committed, flocked to his meetings.
When the returns came in, the PD had a double shock. Though Berlusconi’s residual coalition dropped seven million votes, his resilience as a campaigner had brought the centre-right, which at the outset had seemed a lost cause, to within an inch of victory: only 0.35 per cent behind the centre-left, itself down more than three million, neither bloc reaching even 30 per cent of the total cast. The M5S, on the other hand, had gone from zero to 25 per cent, becoming – if expatriates were excluded – the largest single party in the country, drawing voters from both conventional camps. Grillo’s three-step motto for raising a popular revolt – laughter, information, political action – had proved stunningly effective. The grillini took more votes than either centre-left or centre-right from manual workers, small entrepreneurs, self-employed, students and jobless; the centre-right prevailed only among housewives, the centre-left among pensioners and white-collar workers.
Such was the electoral arithmetic. Parliamentary numbers were another matter. Central to the Second Republic had been, at its inception in 1993, a change in the electoral system – the abolition of proportional representation in favour of a largely Anglo-Saxon-style simple plurality system. No change was more passionately demanded, as the key to responsible and efficient government, by the pensée unique of the time. Nothing of the kind ensued. A decade later, in 2005, the centre-right coalition in office, fearing defeat under this system – from which it had earlier benefited – changed it to a nominally proportional one, but assorted with a premium giving whichever coalition did best, no matter what percentage of the vote it received, an automatic majority of 54 per cent of seats in the Chamber. Described contemptuously as a pigsty even by the minister responsible for designing it, the Northern League stalwart Roberto Calderoli, the Porcellum, as it became known, was a descendant of two other notorious distortions of the popular will in Italy: the Acerbo Law of 1923, pushed through by Mussolini to consolidate his rule, which awarded two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to whichever party had the largest vote above a threshold of 25 per cent; and Scelba’s Legge Truffa of 1953, which awarded 65 per cent of seats to any coalition that got over 50 per cent of the vote, and was so unpopular that it had to be abrogated after the ruling DC coalition failed to win the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote in the only election held under it. The Porcellum was less generous than its Fascist and Christian Democratic precedents in the size of its premium – 54 as against 65/66 per cent of deputies – but also less demanding in the requirement for getting it, not even a quarter of the vote being necessary to take more than half the seats in the Chamber.
In 2013, this meant that the centre-left – which even in its own eyes had performed calamitously at the polls – nevertheless, by virtue of its tiny margin of advantage, was handed a crushing majority of deputies: 345 to 125 for the centre-right and 109 for M5S, out of 630. But this did not clear a path to government. For under the constitution, the Senate – whose powers are of equal standing – requires a regional basis of election. The premium awarded by the Porcellum on a national basis could therefore not be applied to it, as Ciampi, who was president at the time the Porcellum was introduced, pointed out. It had to go instead to the coalition with most votes inside each region. The result was far less favourable to the PD, which gained no more than 123 out of 315 seats. To form a government required a vote of confidence in both houses.
To secure one, Bersani had to secure a deal – coalition or tolerance – with Berlusconi or Grillo. The former was anathema to the PD base, so he tried the latter. But Grillo was not interested. For the M5S, the ideal outcome of the post-electoral impasse was a joint Berlusconi-Bersani government, proving its claim that centre-right and centre-left were two sides of the same coin (the acronym for Berlusconi’s party being PDL, Grillo would refer to Bersani’s as ‘PD minus L’) to which it was the only authentic opposition. That left the option of a minority centre-left cabinet relying on ad hoc tolerance for its measures. Napolitano, whose invitation was needed to present a government for investiture in parliament, rejected this. Unhappy that the Monti regime he had put together, supported by both centre-left and centre-right, had come to a premature end, he wanted a second edition of it. Consistent with a career of adhering to whatever were the pouvoirs forts of the hour, for him it was now the EU whose directives were the touchstone of responsibility. So the imperative was a bipartisan government which would shield the stability and austerity Frankfurt and Brussels required from populist unrest. At this prospect, Bersani dug in his heels. No resolution of the impasse was in sight when – after six weeks of post-electoral tractations – the end of Napolitano’s mandate as president fell due. Editorials beseeching him to accept a second term as the only sea-wall against chaos filled the press. But it was an unwritten rule that no Italian president served more than one term, and Napolitano categorically, and repeatedly, disavowed any such notion. He had done his duty and was packing his bags.
One last service he performed, as he did so. On April 5, he pardoned the American colonel Joseph Romano, sentenced in absentia to seven years for his part in the kidnapping in Milan of an Egyptian cleric, who was then delivered in a US military aircraft to Cairo for months of torture at the hands of Mubarak’s police. Constitutionally, a presidential pardon can only be granted for ‘humanitarian’, not ‘political’ reasons. Romano had spent not a day in prison, having fled the country. But Obama had personally requested that his bagatelle be overlooked, and Napolitano did not hesitate, as so often before, to flout the constitution, explaining that he had pardoned Romano ‘to obviate a situation of evident delicacy with a friendly country’. The suzerain had changed, so too the crimes. The attitude to higher power had not.
An Italian president is elected by a joint session of the two houses of Parliament, plus representatives of the regions, by secret ballot. A two-thirds majority is necessary for election in the first three ballots, subsequently a simple majority. Because votes are secret, party discipline is weak, and many rounds may be needed to produce a successful candidate. In 2006 Napolitano got through on the fourth ballot. In 2013 the electors numbered 1007, requiring 672 votes in the first set of rounds, and 504 thereafter. The centre-left had 493 of these, a starting position of unprecedented strength. But since the president is supposed to be super partes, convention holds that a successful candidate should enjoy a degree of cross-party consensus. The PD therefore sought the agreement of the centre-right for a figure both could support. Franco Marini, a veteran Christian Democrat and former president of the Senate, was picked. Promptly attacked as a discredited fossil by Renzi, whose faction in the PD defected, he scored 521 votes, far short of two-thirds, but sufficient for a simple majority.
Unnerved by this setback, instead of holding steady through to the fourth round, the PD abandoned Marini, and in disarray voted blank in the next two ballots, in which the jurist Stefano Rodotà, proposed by the M5S, came top with 230-250 votes. Grillo, dropping his refusal to have anything to do with the PD, appealed to it to join forces with the M5S to elect Rodotà on the next round, hinting that if this were done, co-operation between the two with a view to agreement on a government was possible. Rodotà was not a sectarian choice; widely respected, he was himself a former president of the previous incarnation of the PD. But a stickler for constitutional legality, he was not acceptable to the party it had become, which feared he might prevent institutional alterations it had in mind, not to speak of destroying any understanding with Berlusconi, for whom he was anathema.
Rallying his troops, Bersani proposed instead Romano Prodi, whose name received a standing ovation from his party. Now only a simple majority was needed. The centre-right deserted the ballot. Yet when the votes were counted, Prodi had received only 395 – a hundred fewer than the centre-left possessed. This time it was not so much Renzi’s faction, but followers of his arch-opponent D’Alema, still bearing a grudge against Prodi from the time of their rivalry in the 1990s, who were the saboteurs. The PD stood exposed as a demoralised rabble, apparently incapable of a modicum of political loyalty and unity. In tears, Bersani quit as leader, and amid deafening ululations in the press over the dangers of ungovernability facing the country, the party rushed to join Berlusconi in begging Napolitano to save Italy with a second term. With many a protestation that it was against his will, he graciously acceded and on the sixth ballot slid smoothly back into the palace he had just ostensibly vacated. At the age of 87, pipped only by Mugabe, Peres and the moribund Saudi king.
A government had still to be formed, but with Bersani – too straightforward a figure to be congenial – out of the way, Napolitano could proceed to re-create the governissimo of his wishes, centre-left interlocked with centre-right. This time he could do so more openly, summoning leaders to confer with him, and dictating their choices. As premier he picked the deputy leader of the PD, Enrico Letta, a former Christian Democrat whose uncle Gianni Letta was the most urbane of Berlusconi’s counsellors. Alfano, responsible for the legislation conferring immunity on Berlusconi and Napolitano, became vice-premier. A functionary from the Central Bank was installed at the Treasury as a guarantee of continuity with Monti’s policies, and compliance with the Fiscal Compact. Berlusconi, however, who owed much of his electoral recovery to pledges that he would rescind Monti’s housing tax and block any further increase in VAT, made implementation of these promises a condition of assent to the coalition. The result was a government zig-zagging ineffectually between incompatible commitments. By the end of the year, the economy had contracted a further 1.9 per cent and public debt risen to 133 per cent of GDP. Its economic record aside, the Letta government was rapidly stained by two scandals of a familiar sort. Alfano, who was also minister of the interior, colluded in the conveyance of the wife and daughter of a Kazakh dissident into the clutches of Nazarbaev, while the minister of justice, Anna Maria Cancellieri, was caught telling the jailed daughter of a construction magnate widely thought to have mafia connections (in times gone by, a backer of Il Moderno) that as a friend of the family she would do what she could for her, in due course springing her for anorexia. Though there was uproar in both cases, neither minister fell, Napolitano and Letta standing by them. In Parliament, the cult of the president reached such a grotesque point that the Speakers in both houses formally forbade so much as a mention of Napolitano from the floor, as an affront to the dignity of the Republic. Naturally, l’innominabile himself deprecated such excessive protection.
The other main objective of the government was electoral reform to do away with the Porcellum, and alteration of the constitution to do away with the Senate. Since according to existing rules the latter would be a protracted process, draft legislation was introduced to curtail it. Public attention, however, was rapidly deflected by the drama of Berlusconi’s misfortunes. In June he was found guilty of prostituting a minor, and sentenced to seven years in prison. No help to his image, the verdict affected him little in the short run: successive appeals against it were capable of delaying final judgment for years. But in August came just such a judgment: four years in prison (three of them waived) for personal tax evasion – €7.3 million underpaid – and a two-year ban on holding public office. The prison sentence, in turn, triggered the provision of a law passed in the final months of Monti’s government excluding anyone so judged from office for six years. Its execution meant Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate.
Aware that this risked a rebellion by the centre-right that would bring down his government, Letta was in no hurry to force the issue, while Berlusconi made increasingly frantic appeals to Napolitano to rescue him, in the hope, or belief, that their past understanding would extend to this solidarity. Napolitano was willing to hint that if Berlusconi asked for a pardon, admitting his guilt (he was protesting his innocence), he might receive one in view of his importance to the political life of the country. But there was no chance of Napolitano going further. He was not sentimental: Berlusconi was no longer to be reckoned with as of old. Furious at this cold shoulder, Berlusconi demanded that his party’s ministers resign from the government, preparatory to bringing it down. They initially complied; then thought of their jobs and of the probable fate of the centre-right if there were fresh elections in these circumstances. The result was an open split, Alfano leading enough parliamentarians out of Berlusconi’s control to form a new centre-right party, giving the government a stable majority no longer subject to his whims. Ten days later, Berlusconi was ousted from the Senate.
Letta’s victory appeared complete. His diplomatic skills, honed in a Christian Democratic tradition, had played a key role in detaching Alfano and his followers from their leader. Fini had been an outsider. Alfano was a true insider, the heir apparent: his defection was the first real split in the party Berlusconi had built around himself. But Letta’s triumph proved brief. Within days, Renzi had swept the primaries for the PD leadership vacated by Bersani and cleaned out the old guard of the party, packing the directorate in charge of its apparatus with adepts and fans of his own generation. Still mayor of Florence and not even in Parliament, but now in command of its largest contingent of deputies, he had more real power than Letta, and wasted no time demonstrating it.
Berlusconi might be a convicted criminal, but he was no pariah – rather, the natural interlocutor of the new leader, a politician who had withdrawn to opposition but not been knocked out of the ring, at the head of the second largest party in the country. The way forward was to cut a deal with him. In short order Renzi was holding confidential discussions with Berlusconi, and the two men had reached agreement on constitutional and electoral changes to be rammed through a Parliament of which neither was a member, in a pact cutting across Letta’s majority in it. What of the prime minister? In tweets like an adolescent cooling out a girlfriend about to be ditched, Renzi wrote to him: ‘Enrico stai sereno nessuno ti vuol prendere il posto’ (‘Keep calm Enrico no one wants to take your job’). A month later, he had ejected Letta and installed himself as Italy’s youngest prime minister.
Like his victim, Renzi comes from a Christian Democratic background – his father was a DC councillor in their home town outside Florence – though by reason of age he grew up through the Catholic scout movement, not, as Letta did, the DC youth organisation. The family ran a marketing business that employed him till his entry into full-time politics; among its accounts was the local newspaper La Nazione. Joining one of the residues of the DC after it had dissolved, Renzi followed this into the centrist ‘Daisy’ party that in due course merged with the remnants of Italian Communism to form a right wing of the PD, and at the age of 29 was picked by it to become president of the Province of Florence: the kind of post he would later denounce as a waste of money and seek to abolish. At the time he made the most of it, swiftly building up an apparatus of aides and dependants, and projecting himself with a series of media events orchestrated by a company created and controlled by him as a propaganda organ of the province, whose debts increased under him and whose accounts would be questioned by state auditors.
After five years, he won the PD nomination for mayor of Florence, one of the bastions of the centre-left in Italy. To much acclaim, his administration pedestrianised its historic centre and burnished its tourist image: citizens could take pride in their city once more. Little progress, however, was made in cutting pollution. Outside the centre, traffic got worse, buses were privatised over union opposition. After initially securing plaudits as the best mayor in the country, Renzi’s standing fell, in part because too many achievements of which he boasted proved hollow. But from the start he was looking outwards. Municipal activities were conceived not so much as an arena of local performance but as a trampoline for the national stage. The priority was high-visibility shows, starring celebrities from across the country in multimedia events, with a series of politico-cultural jamborees in the converted Leopolda railway station, blazoning ‘Next Stop Italy’, ‘Big Bang’ and so forth: rock music and videos at full blast while assorted entrepreneurs, actors, philosophers, musicians, writers delivered soundbites to the crowds, with a rousing finale from the mayor himself. The premium was always on image.
This did not always work out well. Typical of Renzi’s operation were two bids to cash in on the city’s brand-name artists. Beneath one of Vasari’s frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio, he assured the world, still lay Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, and with modern technology it would be recovered, if donors could be found to finance the necessary research, in search of which – in a blaze of publicity, at municipal expense – he travelled several times to America. After months of media attention, nothing came of it. In an even emptier bluff, he announced plans to cover the basilica of San Lorenzo with the marble façade that Michelangelo had designed for it, but that had never been built. That too was worth yards of coverage in the press and features on television, before it fell to ridicule by art historians, and disappeared from view.
From his time as head of the province, Renzi had been building a network of connections with local business. There his key financial backer was a local construction boss, Marco Carrai, whose interests stretched across the Atlantic, and links extended into Opus Dei. Once Renzi was in the Palazzo Vecchio, Carrai was put in charge of the city’s lucrative parking complex and airport, while Renzi installed himself rent-free in an apartment at the disposal of Carrai – an arrangement currently under judicial investigation. Running for leader of the PD three years later, his campaign bankrolled to the tune of €600,000 by the Big Bang Foundation, many of whose donors remained secret, Renzi spared no expense. One of the biggest contributions came from Italy’s top hedge-fund manager, Davide Serra, whose Algebris Investments includes a lair in the Cayman Islands. Resident in London, Serra has become Renzi’s point-man in the wider world of finance, where a banquet in the candidate’s honour assembled the elite of Milanese banking during the campaign. In Florence, the municipal Savings Institute has – no doubt pure coincidence – invested in Algebris bonds. Carrai’s fiancée, meanwhile, a 26-year-old philosophy graduate, has been made one of the curators of this year’s major exhibition in Florence, a publicity stunt touting factitious connections between Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock at a price-tag of €375,000. One of Renzi’s most popular slogans is his call for a country where ‘you get a job because of what you know, not whom you know.’
Business might enjoy an exchange of favours at municipal level, but on a broader front it was Renzi’s ideological message that won him the smiles of big money. Calling for his elders in the PD to be thrown in the garbage-truck played well with the press and a public disillusioned with the political class. For bankers and industrialists, his appeal was more pointedly economic. The woes of Italy stemmed from a spendthrift state and corporatist obstructions of the market, notably – if not exclusively – selfish trade unions. They had to be dismantled. Liberismo – free trade in commodities, including land and labour – was a doctrine not of the right, but of the enlightened left. Its watchword should be innovation rather than equality, however worthy an ideal the latter might be, if properly understood as a career open to talents, above all entrepreneurial. Blair was the leader who had understood all this, setting an inspiring example of the kind of politics of which Italy had urgent need.
Renzi’s cult of Blair reflects, in one sense, the provincial limitations of his culture: he is plainly unaware that the object of his admiration scarcely dare show his face in public in the country he once ruled. But in another, it has served as a calling card to Blair’s greatest friend in Italy. Informal contacts with the centre-right existed from the beginning of Renzi’s ascent in Florence, where his victory over a better-known candidate in a PD primary requiring no registration with the party is often attributed to votes coming from it. From around this period, he was on terms with a Florentine banker, Denis Verdini, whose Credito Cooperativo Fiorentino would collapse amid criminal charges against him, but who as a leading figure in Berlusconi’s organisation in Tuscany would in due course become a key interlocutor on the centre-right. While he was mayor, Renzi travelled to Berlusconi’s villa in Arcore for a discreet dinner with him, a pilgrimage taboo in the PD at the time, only later revealed. Not just a common liking for Blair and appreciation of the value of the entrepreneur, however, drew the two together. Berlusconi has often explained that he sees in Renzi a younger version of himself: the same flair, audacity and charm with which he had captivated the nation twenty years before.
Plainly, in political style the two indeed have much in common. First and foremost, undentable self-assurance in their unique ability to lead the country. Berlusconi’s personalisation of politics is legendary. Renzi’s projection of himself is delivered in a different register, but matches it. Plastered on posters along the route of his tour around Italy, the slogan of his campaign to win command of his party dispensed with any agenda for it other than his person. It read simply: ‘Matteo Renzi Now!’ As with Silvio, that was enough. Such self-confidence lifts each above the doubts or scruples of their peers. Their forms of tactical ruthlessness differ. But as politicians they share a stop-at-nothing quality whose justification comes from two convictions: that only they can accomplish what the hour requires, and only they enjoy a rapport with voters – not all Italians, but the better sort, who form a majority of the nation – that invests what they do with an unanswerable legitimacy. Both too, of course, shot to prominence in conjunctures of crisis, promising the country a fresh start when the political order had fallen into widespread discredit.
Such are the obvious parallels. There are also obvious differences. Of these, four are most significant. Berlusconi entered politics at the head of a business empire, using his vast fortune to win a power that could protect his interests. He was approaching sixty when he did so. His principal instrument in gaining and retaining power was control of television as a medium. His skills in communication were those of a professional of the small screen who knew its rituals and resources intimately, as a marketer and proprietor of the channels on which he appeared in carefully staged addresses to the nation.
Renzi, by contrast, is a creature of pure politics. His rise may have left a faint waft of fetor behind it – pecunia non olet scarcely applies. But funds, dubious or above board, have been merely a means to his ambition: wealth is not an end. The objective is power. Possession of it – this is the second major difference – has been taken by an individual hitting forty, not sixty: a generation younger. Berlusconi based much of his initial appeal on the claim, not just that he was an outsider to the political system, but one who had proved his abilities in creating wealth as an entrepreneur and a manager: he could run Italy as well as he had done his television stations and his football club. Renzi’s appeal is to age, not experience. In itself, jeunisme is a banal card played by rising politicians everywhere in postmodern societies. But Renzi has made of his youth something far more than a mere individual attribute: the emblematic sword of a collective rejuvenation to come, slashing through the geriatric dysfunctions of the political system and its detritus in social and economic life at large. This kind of promise lacks the tangible credentials of material success to which Berlusconi laid claim, but in connecting directly with the frustrations of the two generations of Italians stifled by the immobility and decay of the Second Republic, is fully as potent an appeal.
Along with the contrast in message, there is a variation in medium. Renzi first came to public attention as the winner of a popular quiz show, and has never lost his zest for appearances of all kinds on television, where his chubby good looks and cocky manner made him a natural attraction once he entered politics. But in time his real forte became the web. Facebook to project his image and cultivate his support in ways much fleeter than the television studio could offer, and under much more complete control (even if he was still liable to the occasional gaffe, like the eager posting of an image of himself at Mandela’s bedside in hospital, a split second after the news of Mandela’s death came through); Twitter to supply a continuous flow of his sayings and opinions on affairs of the hour. Berlusconi, though fond of telling bar-room jokes in informal settings, tended to formal bombast in his set-piece political speeches, delivered in double-breasted suits in a grand book-lined study at Arcore. Renzi, by contrast, is ostentatiously casual in dress and speech. On taking power, he addressed the Senate with his hands in his pockets. That was not well received. But in general he is far superior to Berlusconi as a communicator, much quicker on his political feet, with an exceptional knack for lightning one-liners and stinging repartee. By comparison, his role models Blair and Obama are lumbering creatures of their speech-writers. Renzi is not only much faster on the verbal draw. As his best portraitist has noted, unlike virtually any other leader in the West today, he needs no spin-doctor.He is effortlessly his own. His danger lies in a too visible arrogance, inviting mockery. On his way up, he knew how to turn parodies of himself into a cheerful self-irony. Whether that will continue now he is at the top, where too many of his throwaway barbs and put-downs risk grating, remains to be seen.
For the moment, he is on a roll. For twenty years, the descendants of Italian Communism sought in vain what with a handshake from Berlusconi he obtained in a couple of weeks. For the PD, like its predecessors, the bane of every poll in Italy was the presence, allowed representation by the electoral system, of smaller rivals to its left, or – a lesser headache – allies a little to the right. If only, the party longed, it could eliminate such competitors with a French-style double tour, in which after a show of proportionality on the first round, victory by simple majority kicked in on the second, it would enter unhampered into its natural birthright as a governing party of the centre-left in a political system safely restricted to itself and a homologue on the centre-right. This had always remained out of reach, partly due to the natural reluctance of parties scheduled for impotence or extinction under such a system to vote for it in Parliament. It was also – more critically – because Berlusconi, though often making similar noises, was not only better than the centre-left at holding a broad coalition of forces behind him with less to gain from a drastic reduction in the range of these, but also required the support of one particular force, the Northern League, which had a strong identity and organised base that could not be so easily folded into a Gleichschaltung of the kind envisaged by former Communists.
Fair representation of political opinion in Italy, a feature of the First Republic, had been jettisoned in the founding act of the Second. But the hybrid electoral systems installed thereafter were satisfactory to none. Of these, the Porcellum was widely regarded as the worst. Napolitano, once firmly in his ultra-presidential saddle, pressed Parliament to do away with it. Like the party to which he had once belonged, and for the same reasons, it was no secret he thought a double tour the ideal arrangement. The upshot of the election of 2013, and outcry at the institutional impasse that followed, made calls for electoral reform – for years a King Charles’s head of the media – ever louder and more urgent. Such was the situation when in the first week of December last year the Constitutional Court at length pronounced the Porcellum unconstitutional, on two grounds. The premium of an absolute majority awarded to the party with most votes, no matter how few, was a distortion of the democratic will. The closed lists presented by each party, fixing its candidates in a hierarchy of importance in each electoral district, denied voters freedom of choice in selecting their representatives.
The ruling of the court came as a sudden chill to the PD. If it were allowed to stand as it was, the next elections would have to be fought on a proportional system, without any premium, and voters would be able to pick and choose among candidates of the list they preferred – abhorrent to party bonzes of any description, as weakening their power over their troops. Such a scenario was what the PD had most reason to dread. It was vital to banish it. Providentially, the man to do so had arrived. Five days after the court’s decision, Renzi took over the PD. In a few hurried sessions behind closed doors, Renzi and Berlusconi, each seconded by an aide with technical expertise – the political scientist Roberto D’Alimonte, long at the University of Florence, for Renzi; his Florentine fixer Verdini, for Berlusconi – cut a deal to divide the electoral cake between them. Together they would ram through Parliament a system designed to guarantee them the lion’s share of political representation in the future.
After minor alterations, the provisions of the law to come into effect would give a premium of 15 per cent of the seats in the Chamber to any party that achieved 37 per cent or above of the vote in a first ballot, with an upper limit of 55 per cent of seats; and if no party reached 37 per cent, a total of 52 per cent of the seats to whichever of the two parties with the largest vote in the first ballot came ahead on a second. In each electoral district, of which there would be many more, there would still be closed party lists, but these would be shorter – three to six candidates – making it easier for voters to choose among them. The purpose of this scheme was to get round the court’s objections to the Porcellum, by specifying a limit below which the premium would not kick in, while preserving the essence of the Porcellum – a blatant distortion of electoral opinion, tricked out with a token gesture towards greater freedom of choice between candidates. Rounding out the package – grandly entitled the Italicum by its architects; dubbed the Renzusconi by its critics – was a further insurance against wayward temptations among the electorate. Three separate thresholds for political representation of any kind were laid down: a party standing on its own would have to clear an 8 per cent hurdle to win any seats at all, a party within a coalition 4.5 per cent and any coalition 12 per cent.
The pact between the two leaders, however, also stipulated that the Senate would in due course be abolished as an elected body tout court, giving way to a powerless assembly of regional notables – in effect a fig-leaf for a monocameral legislature. But while a new electoral system can be passed by a simple majority in both houses, the upper house cannot be altered without changing the Italian constitution. Letta had tried to short-circuit procedures for that, but had failed. Article 138 of the charter remains in force, unimpaired: it lays down that changes to the constitution require two successive deliberations by each house, with an interval of not less than three months between them, and on the second occasion the changes must gain the approval of an absolute majority in each house, and must then be subject to a popular referendum within three months of their publication, if either a fifth of the members of any one house, or half a million citizens, demands one – a provision that only a two-thirds majority in both houses can avert, of which there is currently no chance. The electoral law could be rushed through within a matter of days. Abolition of the Senate would take at least a year, with the certainty of a referendum at the end of the process.
The lack of synchrony between the two procedures allowed the lesser parties in the ruling centre-left coalition, and a minority in the PD itself, to put a small spoke in the wheels of the bandwagon behind the Renzusconi. If the electoral law went through as proposed, covering both houses before the Senate was abolished, there was nothing to prevent Renzi calling a snap election forthwith, in which the smaller parties would be destroyed and that part of the PD whose allegiance had been to Bersani or D’Alema, over whose bodies he had sped to power, swept away too. But if it were confined to the Chamber, while the lengthy business of altering the constitution to abolish the Senate went through, there would be at least a year’s grace before these groups faced the tumbrils, and in the interval something might turn up to save them. Though diminishing in number, as one-time opponents began to cluster around the new leader, the cold feet of a minority inside the PD could not be completely ignored. So overnight the new electoral system was restricted to the Chamber, effectively precluding recourse to the polls until the Senate was put down, since the latter would otherwise be elected on the Porcellum, now cleansed of the premium and closed lists, all but guaranteeing an outcome asymmetrical with that of the Chamber, as in 2013.
Renzi’s calculation in reaching his pact with Berlusconi was two-fold. He had a short-term aim. In securing such a fundamental deal with the largest party opposing the government, he showed that Letta was now irrelevant, and could be ousted without further ado. Of much greater and more lasting importance was the clear-cut advantage the deal handed the PD, allowing it to move much further to the centre, encroaching on Berlusconi’s electorate, without having to fear losses to its left. The double tour had long been its holy grail: the party had now got it.
With Renzi far ahead of him in opinion polls, why did Berlusconi accept an arrangement from which he had so little to gain, and all but certainly so much to lose? Three circumstances pushed him towards the snare. Since Bossi’s disgrace, the Northern League – which in the past had always been needed to win an election, and for obvious reasons vetoed any such deal – was in eclipse. Berlusconi reckoned he could now discount it. Moreover, he was himself now a convicted criminal, barred from office for two and perhaps more years to come, who had tried and failed to bring down the government, at the cost of a split in his party. By sealing a pact with Renzi to transform the electoral and constitutional system, he could put himself back at the centre of political life, not only regardless of the judicial verdicts against him, but in the hope that he might be appropriately compensated for his disinterested service to Italy as a responsible statesman by having these set aside. Some of the elements of the package, strengthening the powers of the executive at the expense of the legislature, were after all ones he had himself often advocated, if never succeeded in doing much about. He could feel entitled to a share in the inspiration of the deal, and commensurate reward as co-architect of a new and better order.
Lastly, and critically, from the spring of 2012 onwards, when the ring of prosecutions started to close around him, Berlusconi’s political judgment had become increasingly erratic. Removed from power by Napolitano without ever becoming fully aware of what had happened to him, he became increasingly distant from his most experienced advisers, surrounding himself with a couple of semi-literate showgirls from the south, one of them his current companion, who began to call the shots in his party, plus his poodle and a nondescript journalist from television. Illusions that it would be easy to wipe the North clear of the League, and escape more or less scot-free from the sentences against him, were bred in this petticoat bunker. Even Verdini, risking exile from Arcore, has indicated dismay. In such conditions Renzi, seeing how weakened Berlusconi had become, could essentially dictate the outlines of a bargain favourable to the PD.
Manipulation of electoral systems to tilt outcomes is no rarity in liberal democracies: if anything, the rule rather than the exception. In England and America, first-past-the-post systems date from the premodern arrangements of a hierarchical gentry society, scarcely emergent from its feudal origins, in which few polls were even contested. In the early 17th century, only 5 to 6 per cent of constituencies had more than one candidate; even in the Long Parliament, no more than 15 per cent. Their retention into modern times speaks volumes for the nature of Anglo-Saxon democracy. The Fifth Republic in France and the restored monarchy in Spain offer other familiar examples of electoral systems rigged to keep out unwelcome competition from the left. In Italy, the oligarchic regime that followed the Risorgimento – in 1909, the electorate was three million out of a population of 33 million – borrowed a modified first-past-the-post system from England. After the First World War, universal male suffrage and proportional representation arrived together, as logical complements of democratisation. Fascism, no less logically, voided the latter with the Acerbo law. When democracy was restored after the Second World War, the Italian constitution that came out of the Resistance was designed to prevent any return to authoritarian rule. In the First Republic, a honorific presidency of strictly limited compass, two legislative houses of equal weight balancing each other, no right of the premier to dismiss ministers, secret voting on parliamentary bills, popular referendums on petition of citizens – and proportional representation – went together.
With the Second Republic, this configuration started to be twisted out of shape, at two ends. Below, proportional representation was first cut down to a residue of the electoral system, then negated altogether with the introduction of a premium along Acerbo lines. Above, the presidency eventually became the most powerful office in the land, making and unmaking governments. The pact between Renzi and Berlusconi will introduce a Third Republic, concentrating power in the executive and reducing voter choice much more drastically. By any standards, the new electoral system, which has passed its first hearing, is a monstrum. Not content with a premium awarding the winner nearly half as many seats again as votes obtained, it goes further even than Mussolini’s regime in the obstacles it puts in the way of any lesser party or coalition securing seats at all. In the words of the lawyer Aldo Bozzi – acting as a private citizen – whose suit eventually got a verdict of the Constitutional Court against the Porcellum, the Renzusconi is a Super-Porcellum. Even D’Alimonte, one of its own architects, has publicly doubted whether its thresholds are constitutional.
Does that mean it will, like its predecessor, be struck down? Such an assumption would be ingenuous. In Europe, constitutional courts are rarely deaf to the requirements of the government of the day – the ductility of the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Germany is typical enough – and the Italian least of all. Ten of its fifteen judges are directly political appointments, half picked by the president and half by Parliament. To get a sense of the effect, it is enough to note that Napolitano’s most recent pick has been Craxi’s consigliere, Amato, while its current vice-president, Mazzella – picked by Parliament under Berlusconi – was host to Alfano, Berlusconi and the elder Letta at a private dinner a few months before the court was due to pronounce on the Lodo Alfano. After striking down the blocked party lists of the Porcellum in December, when the court published the reasoning for its decision in January, it left open – ‘after informal consultations’ – their permissibility, after all, in smaller constituencies. Three days later Renzi and Berlusconi, having squared the court in advance, announced their package with just that minor modification of the Porcellum in it.
Judicial performances like this are far from peculiar to Italy. In Britain, we have only to think of justices Denning, Widgery or Hutton. Unique, however, is the spectacle of an assembly composed of deputies whose seats are owed to legislation struck down as an unconstitutional abuse of the rights of the citizen, not merely continuing to sit and legislate imperturbably, but to rewrite the constitution itself. In the annals of public law, nothing comparable has ever been seen before. But in Italy the Constitutional Court is unruffled. Explaining that ‘the continuity of the state’ would be in jeopardy if the illegality of the Porcellum were to call into question the legitimacy of the Parliament elected on it, the court has already entitled Parliament to change the constitution. According to this Alice in Wonderland logic, if tomorrow a government rigged elections wholesale, or proclaimed a state of emergency suspending civil liberties, it would have done wrong, but should keep on trucking, since otherwise the continuous existence of the Republic would be at risk – the doctrine of the king’s two bodies updated for postmoderns.
During the 1848 Revolution, at the dawn of principles of democratic proportionality – the first scheme for equitable political representation had been proposed by a follower of Fourier two years earlier – Lamartine remarked: ‘electoral laws are the dynasties of national sovereignty.’ Quite how pointed, and prophetic, the analogy would prove to be, he was not to know. The dynasty now to be foisted on the people of Italy is retrograde even among its peers: Bourbon of the Neapolitan variety, one might say. But its maker can legitimately exult. With it, the momentum Renzi currently enjoys could be locked in for quite a while.
Overnight, his party has become a largely submissive phalanx behind him. Too pleased with himself and dismissive of others beyond his Florentine coterie to be much liked at close range, Renzi nevertheless promises to deliver a power the PD has never enjoyed. The party has at last found a winner, and for the time being frondes will be few. Its cabinet members are lightweights incapable of crossing him, whose function is to project youth and gender parity, and throw his pre-eminence into relief. The mainstream press is supportive across the board, when not lyrical. But if its enthusiasm recalls the euphoria of the British media around the early Blair, the context has changed. Then neoliberalism was cresting. Today its tide is still coming in, but white horses are thinning out – the exuberance is gone. Cameron and Clegg may be pressing beyond Thatcher, but there is no popular buoyancy to their agenda. Under Hollande or Rajoy, Kenny or Passos Coelho, not to speak of Samaras, spending cuts and labour deregulation proceed, but in a spirit of dour necessity, not zestful emancipation.
Renzi’s style does not permit that. His message of hope and excitement requires measures that are something more than belt-tightening. Coming to power by an inner-party coup, without a popular mandate, he needs validation at the polls, and the European elections are looming. In the past, centre-left variants of neoliberalism were typically compensatory, offering side-payments to strategic constituencies to numb their social impact. With the crisis, the margin for such concessions has shrunk. For Renzi, it is critical it be widened again. The side-payments must come up front, without delay, before electors become disillusioned. So his opening package of social measures combines legislation making it so easy for new workers to be fired that even the Economist has raised its eyebrows, with a handout of €1000 in tax-cuts to the least well-paid, unabashedly presented as a plum for the polls.
To pay for these and further expenditures to induce growth, Renzi has made plain that the corset of the fiscal compact will have to be loosened. Italy, he has informed Brussels, is no longer to be lectured like a schoolchild in front of a blackboard. Since the calculations of the EU Commission, like those of the European Central Bank, and not least the regime in Berlin – the three authorities that matter – are ultimately always more political than technical, he is likely to get his way. Renzi’s zeal for structural reforms can be trusted, as Berlusconi’s could not, so there is no point in making life difficult for him by being too literal-minded about the permissible ceiling on deficits. Rules in the EU, should they prove inconvenient, are there to be sensibly bent, not mechanically followed. Much the same will apply to Manuel Valls in France, hailed no less eagerly in the business press, the FT editorialising on the spot: ‘Europe’s New Boys on the Block – Brussels should consider looser budgets for Valls and Renzi.’ How far such adjustments will provide life-blood to the Italian economy in any longer run remains to be seen. What counts in the short run is electoral oxygen for its new ruler. For the moment, Renzi has every reason to be confident.
What of the winter of the patriarch? In a farce typical of Italian justice, his conviction for multi-million tax evasion has ended with the prosecutor waiving any demand for his house arrest and the court – moved by his change of heart – assigning him an onerous four hours a week community service in an old people’s home near his palace in Arcore: just the outcome needed to keep him on board the Renzusconi, which he had threatened to scupper if any worse punishment was imposed – but who could suspect rulers of the land of a line to officers of the law? Yet though he has so far preserved his personal freedom, Berlusconi faces much severer penalties once his sentence last June to seven years’ imprisonment for prostitution of a minor becomes definitive in a higher court, and it is likely that his political life is nearing its end. His party, Forza Italia, already low in the water in the polls, will sink still further, or capsize, should he no longer be able to run it day to day. His name being its only real asset, there will be pressure within its ranks to bring on one of his children as standard-bearer. A wastrel son is unpresentable. Of his daughters, he is much closer to the eldest by his first marriage, Marina, who fronts the Fininvest and Mondadori parts of his empire. But she is rather retiring, and shows no great sign of wanting to pick up the baton. Barbara, his middle daughter, who is 29, helps run Berlusconi’s football club, AC Milan. She is glamorous, outgoing and reputed to be much sharper. Her mother, Veronica Lario, now deeply alienated from her father, took care to bring her up as shielded from him as possible, so relations between them are more distant. Less popular than her half-sister, she has more appetite for politics. In due course, a Barbara Berlusconi ticket is not inconceivable.
The biological heirs will, however, be the least important part of Berlusconi’s historical legacy. For the twenty years of the Second Republic, Italy marked time, in something like a peninsular equivalent of the ‘period of stagnation’ in the USSR. Corruption scarcely abated, and the country went into economic and social decline. Berlusconi’s governments were worse than those of his opponents, but not by a great margin, since neither left much legislative imprint. The principal change of the period came with Italy’s entry into monetary union under Prodi, but it was ambiguous, lowering the country’s borrowing costs, but undermining its exports. Apart from this, the ledger is largely blank, and since Berlusconi ruled for a bit longer than the centre-left, his responsibility is somewhat larger.
But it would be wrong to conclude that he achieved nothing, in the end not even the immunity for which he had entered politics. Berlusconi’s great accomplishment was to transform his opponents in his image. Italy has long had a tradition of high quality political science. Last year one of its best minds, Mauro Calise, published a book entitled Fuorigioco – ‘Out of the Game’. In it, he argued that the personalisation of politics was not an anti-democratic spectre recalling the temptations of a discredited past, as the Italian left had long feared, but the hegemonic form of rule in every Atlantic democracy save Italy. Weber had thought that patrimonial or charismatic leadership was historically in decline in the West. But in fact it was legal-rational authority, which he believed characteristic of modern forms of rule, that was out of date. Video-politics has recreated charismatic leadership. That is not a danger. For today macro-personalisation of power is public, accountable and criticisable. It answers to a world in which communication is no longer an instrument of politics, but its essence, of which there is no reason to be afraid. For video-politics are self-limiting, producing leaders who are at once very powerful and very fragile – vulnerable to opinion polls and the ballot box. What such politics raise up, they can as quickly pull down. The truth is that macro-personalisation is not an antithesis of democracy, but its condition, in a time when parties have lost their force. The Italian left had refused to grasp this, mistakenly associating the liberal norm of a ‘monocratic presidentialism’ with memories of fascism, and then stigmatising it as berlusconismo. Retreating into introverted collective forms of leadership, lacking any charisma, it had handed over the field of relevant competition to Berlusconi, a master of it.
Calise published his book a couple of months before Renzi’s capture of the PD, and it can be read as programme notes of exemplary lucidity for what would ensue, as the centre-left found a leader capable of trumping Berlusconi on his own ground. What is bracketed, of course, in his sanguine diagnosis of the necessary forms of democratic life today is any reflection on its substance. Macro-personalisation is not ideologically neutral. To adopt Calise’s terms, it answers to a world in which personalities become grotesquely magnified – Super Mario and the rest – as partisan differences, and therewith voter choices, pari passu shrink. Berlusconi’s lasting achievement, of which he is aware, is to have reproduced in Renzi not simply a style of leadership, but a brand of politics comparable to his own, much as Thatcher did with Blair. It is thanks to himself, he has repeatedly said, that Renzi has turned the PD inside out, burying once and for all any vestige of a socialist-communist past. It is a legitimate claim.
But Italy, which since the war has known more political rebellions of one kind or another against the established order than any other European society, is not yet quite scoured of these. While Berlusconi and Renzi parlay with each other, their latest form remains at large. The M5S scarcely escapes Calise’s aetiology, though video-politics it is not. Grillo personifies the Five Stars Movement, as its larger than life founder and leader. An autocrat who tolerates no dissent, he too operates outside Parliament, keeping close tabs on his followers within it, and proceeding to summary expulsion of those who break rank; while the number of those who vote in the online deliberations of the movement remains small, not more than thirty thousand or so. The coarseness of many of Grillo’s interventions repels as much as it attracts; likewise the ideological indeterminacy of much of his appeal, allowing for inflexions to the right as well as the left. His general – it is not quite invariable – refusal to have any dealings with other parties has also been self-defeating. Had he been willing, after the success of the M5S in last year’s election, to lend external support to Bersani in exchange for an agreement on political reform, today the Quirinale would be rid of Napolitano, Renzi would still be fretting in the Palazzo Vecchio and Italy would have averted a Neo-Porcellum.
If it is to be effective, protest requires manoeuvre of the intelligence, along with intransigence of the will. Maybe Grillo, learning from experience, will prove more adept, and less commandist, in future, and the movement he has created more than a passing eddy of turbulence. Italians must hope so, for with the disappearance of any meaningful left, for which it is no substitute, the M5S might well emerge as the sole opposition of significance in the country, and with all its flaws and paradoxes, still represents the only sketch anywhere in Europe of a counter-force to what has overtaken representative democracy. Fortunately, amid a desert of media conformism – with cynical benevolence, a centre-left senator once privately described La Repubblica, the nation’s leading daily, as ‘our Pravda’ – Italy possesses one newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, founded four years ago by a group of independent journalists, that fears no one and breaks every taboo: a single such case from one end of the continent to the other. Generally friendly to the M5S, Il Fatto is often sharply critical of it too: just what is needed.
Talk of the Italian Miracle, current in the age of Fellini and the Vespa, has long reversed into its opposite. For decades, Italians have outdone foreigners in bemoaning the Italian Disaster, with at best a few brave spirits upholding some redemptive pockets of excellence here and there: fashion, the Ferrari, the Central Bank. There is no doubt that the country occupies a special place in the set of West European states today. But that is typically misconstrued. Italy is not an average member of the Union. But nor is it a deviant from any standard to which it could be adjusted. There is a consecrated phrase to describe its position, much used within and outside the country, but it is wrong. Italy is not an anomaly within Europe. It is much closer to a concentrate of it.