The sun sets on sultan Berlusconi
By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.
The sultans, as shapers of history, have gone from the world: but they leave behind the memory of a style of rule in which the division between the private life and the public one, between sexual arrangements and high politics, between the settlement of personal debts, whether of money or honor, and the state treasury barely existed. That was true of kings and princes, Russian tsars and Chinese emperors too: but because the west began (with mixed success) to separate the private from the public some centuries ago, the Sultans of Turkey – who came to the gates of Vienna at the height of their imperial reach and who fascinated and terrified Europe for centuries – are still seen here as the epitome of luxury and power combined.
In Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, the West finds the nearest thing it has to a Sultan: luxury and power combined. The idea is that of Giovanni Sartori, the Italian social scientist and commentator, who has taught for many years at Columbia University in New York and who, like all writers on the contemporary Italian scene, has had to put Berlusconi at the center of his commentary. His idea expresses the unique quality the media mogul has brought to democratic government in the modern age: a rule for, by and with himself first.
In this, he betrays the legacy of a much greater Italian, Niccolo Machiavelli, who anticipated the modern age of states by his advice to the Prince to separate his private life and family from his public duties. Berlusconi has vaulted back more than half a millennium to the period of the Medicis and the Borgias. The public is private: the state absolves his alleged crimes or future transgressions through laws passed by his governments. His main business, media, especially TV but also his newspapers and magazines, spread the balm of the good life which his governing style proclaims. His private life cannot be other than public: his latest supposed affairs are proclaimed by his estranged wife to be with minors, and are surrounded by wildly improbable stories on his part, together with the use or abuse of the law and police protocol. He seems genuinely surprised when taxed with this: for the Sultan, there is no problem: private, business and state life are all one seamless web. And if a harem is included, well, “I’m no saint!” is one of his best known remarks. Unfortunately (for him) Italy remains a democracy and the Sultan, especially when his powers fade, is harried from all sides.
And now the power is fading. The Sultan still dresses in dark silk shirts and puts on his built-up shoes and does walk-abouts among the summer crowds in Porto Rotondo, near his Sardinian villa-palace. He still has the knack for the phrase which holds attention: this past week, it was that he was recommending a package of cuts and reforms and tax rises while his heart wept blood and tears. He still has his court, marshalled by his faithful, indispensable, Grand Vizier, Gianni Letta.
But the core promise of his three premierships – no more taxes – has been blown away. Italy, fourth biggest economy in Europe, founding member of what became the European Union, member of the Group of Eight and of NATO, is now under huge pressure: if, after the August holiday, hedge funds try to test the patches put upon the EU’s finances by Germany and France, Italy could be in the front line of the attack and could be reduced to the status of its Mediterranean neighbor, Greece.
None of the news, under the azure skies and the broiling sun, is cheering. Fiat, which had hugely improved under its Italian-Canadian CEO Sergio Marchionne, has been hit badly by the slowdown in the Brazilian economy – one of its biggest markets, and site of some of its biggest plants. Its most successful models are the stylish little Pandas and Cinquecentos: but it’s a law in the car business that small cars mean small profits, and its bigger cars, the Alfas and the Lancias, for all their beauty, can’t beat the Mercedes, the BMWs and the Audis. One of its most successful companies is the engineering defense group Finmeccanica: but the defense market doesn’t look good, at a time of budget cuts. Its wine is more popular, and its fashion as desirable as ever: but consumption of both is bound to suffer. That which has underpinned the Italian economy is weakening now.
And, in this year of celebration of 150 years of Italian Unity, the union is weaker too. Berlusconi’s chief ally is the Northern League, headed by the foul-mouthed Umberto Bossi, whose program commits it to create a separate state – Padania – in the north, free from the “thieves” in Rome and the public spending sink of the south. That commitment has been dormant: but last week, Bossi claimed that “people understand that Italy is coming to a bad end, and we must prepare ourselves for afterwards, which for us is Padania.” The Sultan had held this often difficult provincial chief close to him while he could assure him of his power prevailing: now, he cannot.
One sign, much less grave, nevertheless reveals most vividly that a half century of good economic times are over, and a drastic restructuring must be attempted, if the Italian standard of life is to be maintained. Citizens up and down the peninsula had been used to making ponti, bridges, between the quite frequent one-day holidays and the weekend: so that if, say, Labor day (May 1) or a Saint’s day, happened on a Tuesday or Thursday, the result was an extra long weekend. The government now proposes that such one-day holidays be moved into the weekend, or to a Monday or Friday: a bridge no more. With one exception: secular holidays can be moved, saints’ days can’t. God, it must be hoped, will smile on Italy again. Though not on the Sultan: for him, it is probably too late.
PHOTO: Ialy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a news conference at Chigi Palace in Rome August 5, 2011. REUTERS/Tony Gentile