Is Silvio losing his grip?

Caught with his polls down, and, many believe, his pants down, the Italian prime minister – due in court in April on sex charges – faces ever-louder howls of outrage and calls to quit. His control of the media and populist touch have seen him through similar crises before, but can he escape this time? John Hooper in Rome charts the remarkable career of the man many italians feel is still ‘one of us’

In 1994 Naples was probably cleaner than it has ever been (certainly cleaner than it has ever been since). It had been spruced up for that year’s meeting of what was then the Group of Seven, when Bill Clinton and other heads of state had come to solve the problems of the world. Looked at now, the list of leaders invited to talks in the old Royal Palace has a distinctly historical look. François Mitterrand has been dead for 15 years. Helmut Kohl, John Major and Jacques Delors have all long since retired. In fact, none of the leaders at the summit has been active in politics since 2003: with one exception – the host, Silvio Berlusconi, who was by no means the youngest of those present, is still leading his country 17 years later.

Not for the first time his grip on power is looking shaky. On February 9, Berlusconi learned that prosecutors in Milan had asked for him to be tried on charges of paying for the services of an underage prostitute; and abusing his position to cover up the fact by bringing pressure on the police. Together, they carry sentences totalling 15 years.

The prosecutors believe they have so much and such convincing evidence that they can get Berlusconi put on trial without committal proceedings. And because they had to submit their case to parliament before proceeding with a crucial search, much of that evidence has leaked out to the media: statements by guests at the prime minister’s villa outside Milan recounting dinners for flocks of prostitutes and showgirls, actual and aspiring, who repaired afterwards to a so-called Bunga Bunga room, equipped for pole dancing; transcripts of telephone calls referring to payments running to thousands of euro, and evidence from cellphone records that placed a then 17-year-old Moroccan runaway, Karima el-Mahroug, at Berlusconi’s villa eight times in early 2010.

He and several of his associates have denied the allegations, insisting the dinners were seemly affairs that revolved around Coca-Cola Light and, sometimes, a bit of karaoke. What remains to be seen is whether evidence that has titillated newspaper readers far beyond Italy will be sufficient to obtain, first, an indictment and then a conviction. And, what is more, even before they reach court the prosecutors will have a number of obstacles to overcome: Berlusconi’s lawyers argue that, for reasons of jurisdiction, their client ought never to have been investigated by prosecutors based in Milan, and they say the case should have been referred to a special court that judges government ministers. Only one of the offences of which Berlusconi is suspected can normally be tried without the need for committal proceedings. The scene looks set for a protracted legal wrangling, and it could be that his political enemies get to him before his courtroom adversaries do.

Berlusconi’s poll ratings have fallen considerably since last spring and of the three leaders who joined him in his last coalition government only one, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League, now remains loyal. Pier Ferdinando Casini and his conservative Christian Democrats peeled off before the last general election in 2008. Gianfranco Fini split away with some of his formerly neo-fascist followers last year. Italy’s media tycoon-turned-statesman finds himself more politically isolated then ever before. Though he survived two no-confidence motions in parliament last year his majority has been whittled down to a bare minimum, so it is likely that at some point before his mandate expires in 2013 he will be forced into an early election. But it would be foolhardy to predict he could not win it. And even were he to lose, his place in the history of his country would have been assured. He is Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since the second world war and the one who has been in office for the longest continuous period – from 2001 to 2006.

His many detractors may be loath to admit it but Berlusconi is among the contemporary world’s most successful politicians. If a modern-day Machiavelli were casting around for a leader on whom to model an updated Prince, he might well plump for the diminutive (and apparently scandal-proof) media billionaire politician.

Berlusconi has been in power for eight of the last 10 years and during that time has stamped his personality on Italy in a way that no other leader has done since Mussolini. Unlike his more enduring predecessors, moreover – such as Alcide De Gasperi, Aldo Moro, Giulio Andreotti and Bettino Craxi – he has built around himself a personality cult that is quite unlike anything seen in a post-war western European democracy.

Not even Charles De Gaulle arrived at political rallies to be met by a song like the one rendered by Berlusconi’s followers, “Meno male che Silvio c’e” (roughly, “Thank goodness there’s Silvio”):

Viva Italy –
The Italy that has chosen
To still believe In this dream.
Prime minister, we are with you.
Thank goodness there’s Silvio!
Prime minister, this is for you.
Thank goodness there’s Silvio!

Nor did Margaret Thatcher have a fan club like the one whose web site offers Silvio Berlusconi teeshirts, bags, aprons – and a word from the wise that hints at the view of democracy held by many of his followers. A quotation, supposedly from Aristotle, reminds visitors to the site that “A state is better governed by a good man than by a good law.”

So how has he done it? How has he persuaded Italians in their tens of millions that he is the “good man” they need? Why have they elected as their leader – not once, nor even twice, but three times – a man widely regarded in the rest of the world as a buffoon, if not something altogether more sinister?

Those questions are particularly pertinent in view of Berlusconi’s utter failure to deliver on his central pledge. At the 2001 election, which marked the beginning of what has since become the Berlusconi decade, he promised his compatriots a new economic miracle to match the one that transformed their country between the late 1950s and the early 1970s.

It could be argued at the time that this was not such a preposterous idea. Berlusconi, after all, had turned himself into Italy’s richest man. Was it so absurd to think that he might bring his Midas touch to the nation as a whole?

Ten years later, the answer is clear. The economy has barely grown at all. The economies of Spain, Britain, France and Germany all forged ahead in the 2000s before getting caught in the credit crunch. But, even after the recession that followed, they are still significantly bigger than at the start of the decade. The Italian economy, on the other hand, has barely grown at all. In fact, there was a point at the start of last year when real GDP was lower than in 2001. The only other countries of which that could be said were Zimbabwe and Haiti.

The explanation for his survival most often advanced by Berlusconi’s supporters is an unexpected one. His present government is, or at least was, a significant improvement on the previous two. Like the others, it is has been hamstrung by his conflicts of interest and his attempts to provide himself with immunity from the law. But it has kept control of the public finances and succeeded in imposing some change on Italy’s legendarily sclerotic civil service
and its hidebound university system. Yet even convinced Berlusconi-ites show embarrassment when it comes to defending his record or saying openly that they admire and support him – and to such an extent that it skews the results of opinion polls.

Instead, they tend to argue there is no choice; that Italy’s left-wing opposition is simply unelectable
and so, for better or worse, Italians have no choice but to cast their votes for Berlusconi. In other words, “Thank goodness there’s Silvio.”

The Italian left unquestionably has problems. The biggest opposition group, the Democratic party
(PD), is made up of former acolytes of two failed creeds. The predominant one is Communism. Soon – almost indecently soon – after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the old Italian Communist Party (PCI) ditched its Marxism and turned itself into the first of various re-incarnations espousing social democracy. The last of these merged in 2007 with a party that represented the more progressive wing of Italian Christian democracy to form the PD.

Christian democracy may not have been discredited to the same extent as Communism. It is still the dominant force on the right in Germany, after all, and many Italians still admire and respect
the Roman Catholic church’s social teaching, which inspired it. But in its Italian form Christian democracy was profoundly compromised by its leading role in the so-called First Republic, an increasingly corrupt system that was used to run the country right up until the early 1990s by means of a loose and shifting alliance between five parties whose common aim was to keep the Communists out of power.

For almost half a century, the key inter-reaction in Italian politics, then, was between Catholicism on the one hand and Communism on the other. Liberalism barely got a look-in. So it is no surprise that the PD – a party created from the remnants of the two previously warring factions – has never managed to sound convincing when espousing the liberal ideas that have been incorporated more or less smoothly into the programmes of other centre-left parties in Europe, like Felipe González’s PSOE and Tony Blair’s New Labour.

What is missing almost completely from the Italian political scene is the social democratic tradition that González and Blair represented and which has managed to sell itself, not just in Spain and Britain, but in France, Germany and many other European states, as an acceptable and moderate alternative to conservatism. This too is a result of the First Republic which, if it compromised Christian democracy, all but destroyed social democracy.

Italy’s small Social Democratic party was regarded as the most hopelessly sleazy of the five that collaborated in the cartel-like division of power, jobs – and, crucially – bribes or “tangenti”. But in the latter stages of the old regime, it was rivalled, if not actually overtaken, in the scale of its venality by the Socialist party under Bettino Craxi, a politician who was subjected to the indignity of being pelted with coins by outraged members of the public and who died in exile as a fugitive from justice…..

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