Is Berlusconi finished?

Paul Ginsborg

Italy, like Britain, is a European democracy whose politics lean more towards the centre-right than the centre-left, although the long-term reasons for this are strikingly different. Britain’s political conservatism derives in great part from its insular tradition, the absence of defeat in external war and major social disturbance at home, and the consequent extraordinary continuities of its elites and institutions. Italy, on the other hand, has been shaped by its geopolitical position at the centre of the Mediterranean, looking in one direction towards the Levant and in the other towards Spain. Deep-rooted Mediterranean cultures of patronage and of clientelism, of family and of clan, have combined with a weak state tradition to create a strange mixture of deference and hierarchy, irreverence and individualism. Mussolini once complained that he was the most disobeyed dictator in history. In the recent Italian past there have been extraordinary movements of protest and of resistance, none more so than in the periods 1943-45 and 1968-73. But overall, Italian history tends to confirm the reflections of one of its greatest 19th-century intellectuals, Carlo Cattaneo, who briefly led the Milanese revolution of March 1848. Italy, he concluded, was a country capable only of short-lived upheavals and long counter-revolutions.

At the heart of any explanation of this pattern lies the Vatican. Seen from the viewpoint of the nation-state, the Vatican is a very large cuckoo in the Roman nest. It’s hardly surprising that Italy’s postwar republic was dominated by the Christian Democrats for nearly fifty years, from 1946 to 1992. In February the Council of State resolved a long-running dispute as to whether or not there should be a crucifix in every Italian classroom. A Finnish woman living in Abano Terme had bravely protested to the courts that the Italian state was not a clerical one, that school classes were increasingly religiously mixed, and that crucifixes should therefore be removed. The Council of State ruled that the crucifix ‘performs a symbolic educative function regardless of the professed faith of the schoolchildren’. And it went on: ‘It is obvious that in Italy the crucifix expresses the religious origin of values that have defined Italian civilisation, and which have imbued the traditions, way of living and culture of a people.’ There could be no clearer statement of the way in which the Vatican, in spite of a constant decline in the numbers attending Mass, continues to dictate the agenda for much of Italian national life, both public and private.

In the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII’s famous encyclicals, Mater et magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963), together with his summoning of the Second Vatican Council, produced great ferment in the Catholic world. But the radical tide ebbed, and the long and powerful pontificate of Karol Wojtyla pushed the Catholic Church in a much more conformist direction. The little postcard portraits or framed pictures of Pope John XXIII, which were so common in Italian shops and homes in the 1960s and 1970s, have slowly disappeared. They have less often been replaced by representations of John Paul II, perhaps more respected than loved in Italy, than by those of Padre Pio, the charismatic southern Italian Capuchin friar who claimed to have received the stigmata, and who was made a saint, in record time, by John Paul II in February 2002.

Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978. Silvio Berlusconi took control of all three principal channels of Italian commercial television six years later. Their respective reigns, both more than twenty years long, one over the religious culture of the country and the other over much of its daily media diet, have diverged on some crucial points – consumerism is one – but together they have left an indelible mark on Italian popular culture.

One other factor helps to explain why Italy is a country of the centre-right. It is the home of the self-employed, more so than any other country in Europe. Small shops have survived and even prospered in a way that would be quite unimaginable in Northern Europe or North America. Family firms have played the crucial role in the construction of industrial districts that have become famous throughout the world. Not all small entrepreneurs are right-wing, especially in the central regions of Italy, but the flair and quick-wittedness that often characterises them is not usually accompanied by a high degree of civic consciousness. Mr B. has exercised a fatal attraction over such people.

In the last decade Italy’s predisposition to vote for the centre-right has taken a different, not necessarily steady or democratic form. The political novelty that Italy has presented to the world has been a television magnate turned prime minister, whose principal desire, as Eugenio Scalfari once remarked, seems to be the transformation of the whole country into his personal clan.

The story is briefly told. In 1992 Christian Democrat hegemony in the republic was destroyed by the ‘Clean Hands’ investigation of the Milanese magistrates. Although some of their methods have been rightly criticised, the magistrates performed a valuable, even unique, task: in the North they laid bare the system of corruption which linked businessmen, administrators and politicians, and in the South they uncovered the links between the Mafia and the political system. The parties which had ruled the republic – the Christian Democrats and Socialists above all – were shattered.

A hole opened up, unexpectedly and invitingly, at the centre of the political system. Some took this moment to be the dawn of a ‘second republic’, led by the left and dedicated to transparency, social justice and administrative reform. But once again the brief upheaval was followed by a long counter-revolution, made this time in Berlusconi’s image. Berlusconi feared the Milanese magistrates, and he saw what a chance had presented itself with the demise of the Christian Democrat leadership, and that of his own political mentor and protector, the Socialist Bettino Craxi. On 26 January 1994 he went on television to announce his entrance into the imminent election campaign: ‘Italy is the country I love. Here I have my roots, my hopes, my horizons. Here I have learned, from my father and from life, how to be an entrepreneur. Here I have acquired my passion for liberty.’

Berlusconi cleverly knitted together an electoral coalition with two previously anti-system parties, the racist and xenophobic Northern League of Umberto Bossi and the post-Fascists of Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance, and won an extraordinary victory in the March elections of 1994. The coalition soon collapsed, and after an uncertain interregnum the centre-left took over and governed, without distinction, between 1996 and 2001. The crucial point is that Berlusconi, with characteristic opportunism, had filled the void on the centre-right. He continued after 1996 as leader of the opposition, rebuilt his coalition, increased his personal wealth by the end of the century to something between ten and 14 billion dollars, and bounced back to win the 2001 elections comfortably.

Berlusconi’s record in government has been poor. In 2001 he appeared on television to sign a formal contract with the Italian people, promising reduced taxes, increased pensions, reform of the public administration, less crime and less immigration, a vast programme of public works, and the curbing of judicial independence. None of these, except the last, has been achieved. There has been a great deal of propaganda (shades of the Fascist regime), but few concrete achievements. Many ceremonial openings of new public works projects have taken place, but hardly any of the works have been completed. In some cases this is just as well. The plan to build the longest suspension bridge in the world over the Straits of Messina has met with furious opposition from environmentalists and local inhabitants. It is a grotesque project: the bridge’s main pillars are planned to reach a height one and a half times that of the Eiffel Tower. For Berlusconi, gargantuanism and modernity go hand in hand. Another project, the construction of a 52-kilometre railway tunnel through the Alps, as part of the new Lyon to Trieste European corridor, has provoked the resistance of the whole population of the Val di Susa. Work has been suspended.

The main problem preoccupying Berlusconi has been economic performance. It has been a sorry story, not all of it his fault, given the sluggish performance of Continental European economies over the past few years. But Italy has a particular problem of competitiveness, and the Berlusconi years have done nothing to help it. The country’s huge public debt has grown, its percentage of world trade has declined from 4 per cent in 2001 to 2.9 per cent in 2005, and the balance of trade has moved heavily into the red. The economic renaissance promised by the businessman-prime minister has not materialised.

As a result, family incomes have fallen, unemployment has grown in the South, and social mobility is seizing up. Berlusconi blames the euro. But how was it, Romano Prodi asked on television the other evening, that before monetary union shoppers from Innsbruck came to Bolzano, and after it, Bolzano shoppers started going to Innsbruck? There had to be some Italian responsibility here. In fact, Berlusconi had turned a blind eye to price increases. This is typical: incapable of long-term and perhaps unpopular economic strategy, he is inclined rather to grant favours and concessions to single persons and specific socio-economic categories. His is a patrimonial view of politics, based on the charisma of the clan leader, on a reciprocity of favours, and on more or less arbitrary power exercised in a much weakened system of law.

In foreign affairs, Berlusconi has lined up firmly with the Anglo-American alliance, and unhesitatingly joined the Coalition of the Willing. In return, Bush recently granted him the honour of addressing the Senate, an invitation timed conveniently to coincide with the opening of the Italian election campaign. Wary of British public opinion, Blair has made no such gesture, but he has shown his friendship for Berlusconi in many other ways, even to the extent of accepting that holiday invitation to his villa in Sardinia. Indeed, he has consistently behaved with such spregiudicatezza – ‘laudatory lack of scruple’ – in this relationship that he should perhaps be made an honorary member of the Italian political class. He has remained deaf to all appeals to keep his distance from a figure who still faces serious criminal charges, exercises deeply undemocratic control over his own country’s media, and has pushed through parliament ad personam laws in an attempt to save himself (largely successfully) and his lawyer friend Cesare Previti (largely unsuccessfully). As for David Mills, one wonders what other revelations wait to be retrieved, by journalists or historians, from the dimly lit world of the two Mr Bs.

In the autumn of 2005 Berlusconi’s coalition lagged behind the centre-left by ten electoral points. His opponents, who had never bothered to analyse his case in theoretical terms, and who had already in 1996-97 made the very costly error of considering him to be yesterday’s man, wrote him off once again. Instead Berlusconi fought back with great determination. His first move was to change the Italian electoral law back to proportional representation, a system which has always favoured the centre-right. His opponents were astonished at his effrontery. Then he attacked the Left Democrats, the largest single component of the centre-left, for their indirect involvement in the scandal surrounding the attempted takeover of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. The left had always proclaimed its moral superiority, he noted, but it was no better than the right. After that, he mobilised the television studios at his disposal (i.e. all of them), and launched an all-out media assault on the electors. With the campaign now in full swing, his face stares down from huge hoardings at the motorway autogrill, in the atriums of the central stations, and along electoral bunting strung across the roads of southern cities. He is everywhere. By the middle of March, he had closed the electoral gap to four points, much too close for comfort for a now seriously worried centre-left.

However, as we enter the last weeks of the campaign the impression is that, barring something extraordinary happening, Berlusconi has shot his bolt. His cause has been seriously damaged by the enforced resignation of two of his ministers. Roberto Calderoli of the League, in a piece of malicious buffoonery typical of his party, unbuttoned his shirt during a television interview to reveal the Danish anti-Islamic cartoons printed on his vest. There was immediate anti-Italian rioting in Libya, with ten people killed. And then Francesco Storace of the National Alliance was accused of employing special investigators to spy on his opponents during last year’s regional elections.

In the television debate of 14 March, Prodi emerged the clear winner. Berlusconi appeared tired, unable to keep within the time limits, and evasive in some of his replies, particularly on women’s representation in parliament and on the worsening situation in Iran. At the end of the same week, booked to address Confindustria, the Italian employers’ association, he pulled out complaining of backache. Then he changed his mind and harangued the audience in an agitated and unconvincing fashion. He knows that the government’s economic record has cost him their support, as well as that of nearly all Italy’s major newspapers.

It is now probable that the centre-left parties will gain power on 10 April, but it is not at all clear for how long they will exercise it. They have in Prodi a leader who was much criticised in Europe when he was president of the Commission, but who is a good contender on the Italian stage. His resemblance to a bumbling rural priest has often been noted, but that is anything but a disadvantage, for the reasons I outlined at the beginning. He is certainly a devout Catholic. His gruelling European experience has stood him in good stead, and he is much tougher than he at first appears.

Prodi’s assumption of the leadership was accompanied by the one real innovation in Italian politics – the use of primaries. The idea was introduced by Prodi’s right-hand man, Arturo Parisi, a shrewd political scientist who recognised their usefulness for loosening the iron grip of the political parties. They have certainly led to some surprising results, none more so than in Puglia, in the south-east of the country. Niki Vendola, gay and communist, not only beat the official centre-left candidate in the regional primaries, but went on to win against the centre-right. He is now the governor of Puglia, one of the most surprising electoral results in the history of the republic. Prodi, too, used primaries to reinforce his position. The result of the national leadership contest was a foregone conclusion, but more than four million centre-left voters participated.

The primaries strengthened Prodi’s hand, but he is faced with a difficult situation even so. His coalition is very heterogeneous. It stretches from Rifondazione Comunista on the far left, to the Greens, to the Rosa nel Pugno (an alliance of radicals and socialists formed to combat Cardinal Ruini’s constant incursions into Italian politics), to the Left Democrats (the largest grouping with some 20 per cent of the vote), to the centrists of la Margherita (around 12 per cent), and finally to a small Catholic and traditionalist grouping under Clemente Mastella, who is always threatening to jump ship and rejoin the centre-right. (And that doesn’t exhaust the list.) Prodi has no party of his own (he belongs to the Margherita but does not control it), and this makes his position even more complicated. As a result, he is continually called on to mediate between party secretaries. It is a thankless task but not an impossible one, for proportional representation has made Italian politicians masters of this particular art.

The heterogeneity of the coalition and Prodi’s own delicate position within it are two significant weaknesses. However, they are not the principal ones. The Italian centre-left, and in this it is no different from most others in Europe, lacks any ability to create enthusiasm for a new political project. The parties that compose it are self-referential, constantly giving the impression of being more interested in managing power than in opening up the system to popular participation. They count for less and less in society, as membership declines, but for more and more within the state. For fear of losing control, they cold-shouldered the huge wave of civil society mobilisation against Berlusconi in 2002, and for much the same reasons they refused to hold primaries for the choice of deputies and senators in the upcoming elections.

The moderate part of the centre-left, the Left Democrats and Margherita, have talked of forming a new Democratic party, which would have more than 30 per cent of the electorate behind it. Prodi and Walter Veltroni, the very popular mayor of Rome, are strong supporters of the idea. But progress is painfully slow, and it is not accompanied by any real desire to renew the party system. The post-Communist Left Democrats are particularly uncertain, caught between lingering loyalty to traditional left-wing goals and the Blairite version of neo-liberalism.

As for the radical left, which is unusually strong in Italy, division is the order of the day. Over the last year a group of intellectuals, trade unionists and civil society activists, led by Alberto Asor Rosa, tried to convince the warring groups to bury their hatchets and create a new permanent assembly. The enthusiasm that such a move would have generated in an election year could well have brought the radical left – new global, red and green – to well over 13 per cent of the vote. The project was sunk by the stony ‘no’ of Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of Rifondazione Comunista, the largest group. A significant opportunity was lost.

According to the latest polls, the centre-left is in the lead by 51 per cent to 47 per cent. If Prodi wins handsomely, many of his problems will be eased, for he will no longer be the hostage to fortune of any small grouping within his coalition. If the margin is narrow, he will not survive for long. Major manoeuvring will then take place and the most likely outcome will be the creation of a powerful centre, reassembling the moderates of the two camps in a new version of Christian Democracy. We will then have come full circle.

If Berlusconi wins, he will finally liquidate his outstanding legal problems, and will almost certainly become president of the republic, with Gianfranco Fini as his prime minister. The smiling face of the little man will then, by law, stare down at us from the walls of every Italian public institution. It is not a happy thought, either for Italy or for Europe.

24 March