The once and future Silvio

October 30, 2012

A stake through the heart might keep Silvio Berlusconi out of Italian politics, but it better be hammered in hard. Last week he renounced all intention of running again for the premiership of Italy, then received a four-year prison sentence (later reduced to a year) for tax evasion.

Facing that, another man might have sought privacy, but the former prime minister shows – and licks – his wounds in public. He called a press conference and threatened to withdraw his party’s support of the government of technocrats led by Mario Monti. Without that, it would fall. Italy, its economy still fragile, would be plunged into a deep crisis. Berlusconi, who advertised his decision to renounce office as having been dictated by his “love of Italy,” now seems, in his rage over the sentence, to be imitating Samson, pulling down the pillars of the temple as he leaves it.

On the day Berlusconi was sentenced, Elsa Fornero, the cabinet minister responsible for work, pensions and equal opportunities, came to Oxford to speak to a largely Italian audience, a meeting I chaired. She – like Monti, an economics professor – is the kind of politician you find in a TV series like The West Wing. She speaks as one intelligent adult to others, patient in explaining complex legislation. She’s at the heart of the storm that the Monti government’s cuts have stirred in the still powerful trade unions.

At one point, a student asked her, with a certain edge to the question, why her government, in power for almost a year, had not done more about corruption – a sore point in an ailing country. Ms. Fornero, her voice a little husky, said that corruption was endemic, deeply antisocial and fearfully hard to eradicate by government action. Instead, Italians had to feel their taxes were part of their social duty, part of what it was to be a citizen. Evading tax should no longer be thought of as the clever or responsible (to one’s family) thing to do, but instead as an act that impoverishes society. Elected politicians in Italy rarely speak like that.

She did not mention the former prime minister once, though I tried to tempt her to comment. This government depends on the major parties’ support, and tiptoes carefully around apportioning blame for Italy’s dire financial state. Anything else would be irresponsible.

This column has no such inhibitions. Silvio Berlusconi was, in almost all ways, a disaster for Italy over these past two decades, and seems intent on remaining so. His conviction for tax evasion is going to be appealed, likely until it’s outside the statute of limitations, nullifying any sentencing. In the past 20-plus years, the statute has come to his aid in charges of false testimony, bribery (three times) and illegal financing of a political party. Laws he had passed when prime minister decriminalized the crime of false accounting – which exempted him from a charge involving his football club, AC Milan. He has spent many millions of euros on defense lawyers, and some 100 cases have been opened against him. He has claimed they all result from the machinations of “communist” judges.

There is an argument, much deployed by his supporters,  that his many affairs are his own business. If, however, he broke the law by paying for sex with an underage night club dancer, Karima el-Mahroug – as he is accused of doing in yet another court case (that also has a charge he abused his office to have her set free from a police station in which she was being held on a theft charge) – then it is justice’s business. Even if that charge does not stick – el-Mahroug claims he did not have sex with her – the example he showed in giving young women, some said to have been his mistresses, jobs in TV and politics underscored and encouraged the sexual dominance common amidst wealthy older men in Italy.

His pitch to Italians has been, since the early nineties, that his success as an entrepreneur could be transferred to making Italy an economic success. The reverse has happened. He has done little to reform and liberalize an often sclerotic state (he was, to be sure, discouraged from doing so by his coalition partners, who pulled in opposite directions). When Monti replaced him last December, the event was a humiliating reminder that his economic leadership had been bankrupt, as was the country. Corruption, as measured by Transparency International’s yearly index, has been steadily worsening: Italy now ranks at 69 on the scale, sharing that placing with Ghana, Macedonia and Samoa.

There is more: Berlusconi’s denigration of parliament, the contempt he increasingly engendered in other world leaders, strong if unproven evidence of links with the Mafia through close associates, the labeling of all opposition as “communist” and the scattering of promises that were not kept. But all should not be laid at his door: The electors must shoulder responsibility, too. For two decades, Berlusconi has been incomparably the most powerful political figure in the country, made so by the people who elected him. Many millions of Italians must, at last, come to terms with the consequences of their choice.

Further, throughout his period of dominance, the main opposition – the parties of the left – provided an unconvincing alternative. They coalesced round Romano Prodi, a left-wing Christian Democrat – but twice failed to support him, with coalition members who spanned centrists and far-left Communists unable to agree on a coherent platform but willing to pull the plug on their administration. Now, Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the main left group, the Democratic Party, is challenged by the 37-year-old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who calls for the old guard to retire to make way for youth and criticizes his party for its continued attachment to centralizing, statist policies. Win or lose, Renzi has illuminated a future split in a party whose left and right wings are increasingly at odds.

The right is in worse shape. Traditionally dominant in the south, it lost both the governorship and the majority in the regional parliament in Sicily earlier this week to a leftist coalition, headed by the openly gay and brave anti-Mafia fighter Rosario Crocetta. Crocetta polled over 30 percent of a turnout that reached only 47 percent of the total electorate – beating the right’s coalition. But the “winner” was the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars movement, which campaigned alone and thus got more votes than any other single party – with nearly 20 percent for its gubernatorial candidate, warehouseman Giancarlo Cancelleri, and 15 percent for its party in the assembly. Grillo is a ruthless, if talented and hilarious, populist who also seems to hold parliamentary democracy in contempt. But he’s long proclaimed the Italian political class to be rotten, and now many endorse his view.

Can any of these parties govern Italy, when the Monti government ends its mandate next spring? When I asked Elsa Fornero that question in Oxford, she smiled and said, “I have confidence in my country.” Pray that it finds enough confidence in itself. A truly bankrupt Italy would convulse Europe.

PHOTO: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waves as he leaves his residence in downtown Rome November 13, 2011. 

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