I’ve been following the politics of Italy more closely since I started this blog at the start of 2005. I’d say that I know more than some, but not as much as others. With that explanation stroke caveat, here goes my take on the Berlusconi phenomenon. By all means feel free to correct and disagree with me.This is my opinion and some of what I have written may not go down too well with my Italian readers.
Cultivating a network of contacts and friends has been an aspect of Italy’s culture for many years.
Certainly back in the 1960s, and most probably long before that, getting to where you wanted to go in Italy involved knowing or buttering up the right people. It is largely the same today.
Silvio Berlusconi is a child of Italy’s “connections count” culture and has spent a lifetime cultivating a substantial network of contacts.
It is alleged, and has almost been proved, that Berlusconi has used money and favours to acquire the support he needed for certain projects. Not only this, but it has been suspected for many years that Berlusconi made an unholy alliance with Italy’s infamous criminal organisation: the Sicilian mafia. For certain groups of Italians, such alliances are a necessary evil.
Some Italians genuinely respect Berlusconi for his mastery of the Italian way of doing things. Others though, see Berlusconi, his associates and those who support him, as being part of that age old Italian problem: Italy is a society in which meritocracy counts far less than knowing the right people.
Berlusconi is very much part of the Italy which believes having the right contacts is the only way to prosper in life.
Those who support Berlusconi appear to regard cronyism as a form of necessity. This is probably because the “friendship” system has made some of them very, very wealthy and for them the system is fine as it stands.
Berlusconi gives the impression he wants to perpetuate such a system; it did, after all, make him extremely rich, and there will be a good number of people supporting him in this desire – people who see themselves as the “new Berlusconis”.
The younger members of Berlusconi’s party are people who believe they can benefit from Italy’s more or less traditional way of doing things.
Both the older supporters and the younger ones are happy for Berlusconi to stay where he is.
Now, let me take a look at why knowing the right people is such a fundamental aspect of Italian culture. The answer lies in distrust.
Friendship and Distrust
Italians, not all, but a substantial number, do not trust their fellow countrymen.
As a people, they live in perpetual fear of someone getting one over on them.
I’ve noticed this myself, and research carried out by Gabrielle Calvi has confirmed the lack of trust Italians have for one another.
How does one manage such a situation?
By making friends with as many useful people as possible, or if amicable mutually beneficial relations cannot be established, loyalty is purchased.
Owing to levels of mutual distrust, another system which operates in Italy is what one might refer to as ‘pre-blackmail’. The rich and powerful create detailed dossiers on their enemies. No stones are left overturned, worm-filled cans are identified, and skeletons in closets tracked down, and everything is noted.
When the need arises, the party who is causing problems is treated to revelations, or the threat of them, regarding his or her past.
Berlusconi has most probably amassed files upon files on his enemies and has allegedly used mud slinging tactics to blacken the names of those who dare criticise him.
Some examples: a judge who found against him found himself the subject of television reports and newspaper articles; former political partner Gianfranco Fini was also subjected to a media attack over a dubious property transaction. Not much is heard about Fini these days. A journalist who wrote an uncomplimentary article about Berlusconi had a broadside fired at him via Berlusconi-friendly media and ended up resigning.
Not only has Berlusconi built up a wide network of good friends and probably created dossiers on all those who he feels might betray him (and then some), but he also has a huge media network at his beck and call.
If bringing his media might to bear fails to silence those who speak ill of Berlusconi, he has the money to take people to court and ruin them. He can certainly keep some off Italy’s national television channels.
In face of the power Berlusconi wields, those who would like to have a go at Berlusconi must think twice before stirring muddy waters. It could be said that Berlusconi’s media might acts as a deterrent and helps maintain loyalty.
What this all adds up to is that open criticism of Berlusconi is a) kept to a minimum, and b) successfully countered.
It is probable that Berlusconi, who started out as a real estate developer, deliberately homed in on the media business in Italy because he understood just how effective a tool media power would be to help himself rise to the top.
And when no dirt can be found, it can be invented – which is, incidentally, a tried and trusted mafia tactic. Often merely planting the seeds of doubt is enough to render criticism innocuous.
Silvio Berlusconi is expert at “keeping” friends and equally skilful keeping those who are not his friends quiet. This skill has undoubtedly contributed to Berlusconi’s resilience.
The Vatican FactorThere have been intimate connections between Italy’s politics and the Vatican for a lot longer than Silvio Berlusconi has been on the scene.
Without the Vatican’s blessing political careers in Italy can reach a dead end.
The astute Berlusconi is as aware of this as any other politician in Italy.
He has done his utmost to keep the Vatican content. Legislation has been passed to the benefit of Vatican Wikipedia – in Italian – Finanziamenti alla Chiesa cattolica in Italia”>run schools.
The Berlusconi led government is against abortion and for the sanctity of life, as is the Vatican.
The Vatican also enjoys significant Wikipedia – in Italian – Finanziamenti alla Chiesa cattolica in Italia”>tax breaks which the Berlusconi government either has not modified or has extended.
Although the Vatican might find Berlusconi’s actions morally questionable, in view of the charitable treatment it receives from his government, Berlusconi’s behaviour is, for the most part, tolerated.
Also ensuring that Vatican criticism of Berlusconi is minimal are cases involving the somewhat dubious financial activities of the Roman Catholic Church. Take, for example, the case of the Bishop of Naples Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe who has been caught up in inquiries into corruption concerning property transactions in Rome.
Then there is Father Luigi Verzé of the San Raffaele hospital complex in Milan. Berlusconi has been a supporter and associate of Don Verzé for many years. As at the time of writing, investigations into a financial crisis concerning funding of the San Raffaele are in progress. The case could cast a very dark light on the Vatican.
As you will have gathered, the savvy Berlusconi has worked hard to build a cosy relationship with the Vatican. One suspects that Berlusconi has amassed information on numerous Vatican relationships and business transactions, the revealing of which would damage the Holy See gravely – which is probably yet another reason for the Vatican’s rather muted criticism of Silvio Berlusconi.
As long as the Vatican continues to find Berlusconi acceptable publicly, then so will the Roman Catholic contingent of Italy’s voters.
Cronyism and its close relation, distrust, combined with the friendship of the Vatican are some of the reasons why Berlusconi has managed to keep himself at the top for so long.
The Politics of Berlusconi
Berlusconi’s political philosophy, if it exists, appears to be a combination neoliberalism and something approaching fascism.
He also appears to like the idea of cult of personality and works hard to keep all those around him in his shadow.
Benito Mussolini appears to be one of Berlusconi’s heroes, and he has been known to quote from Mussolini’s diaries.
Within Berlusconi’s party there are those who were part of Italy’s more extreme right wing – including some who still idolise Mussolini, such as Italy’s defence minister, maybe.
Silvio Berlusconi is aware of the pro-Mussolini sentiment in Italy uses it to his advantage, as well as trying to shine a rosier light on Italy’s late dictator.
Some Italians, for reasons which are not entirely clear, fear communism, even if as a political ideology, it is a spent force. This, however, has not stopped Berlusconi from labelling just about everyone who opposes him as communists. Being a fervent anti-commie goes down well with a section of Italy’s population and contributes to Berlusconi’s popularity.
Berlusconi’s calculated and continual, until recently, attacks on Italy’s judiciary (which he refers to as a bunch of commies) have won him over in the eyes of Italians who desire freedom from interference. Such people only really believe in law and order if it does not affect them.
For others though, it’s not so much right-wing ideals, as the undying attraction of money and power which keeps them supporting Berlusconi. Such people wish to be left free to do as they like without others irritating them over such things as breaking laws.
Berlusconi, like all politicians, loves to make, and repeat, promises. Many of the “reforms” Berlusconi has been promising would ensure that Italy lean even further towards the very opposite of meritocracy.
Quite a number of laws created by his government have appeared to be of direct benefit to Berlusconi. While this has irritated some, other Italians think they would do the same in his place.
Despite the negative aspects of how Berlusconi sees and rules Italy, many Italians share his view and would quite like to keep Italy the way it is. They have confidence in him.
Photo: Wikimedia commons
A Question of ConfidenceBerlusconi’s extensive network of loyal friends has helped keep his government in place.
Much work has been done to ensure members of his party are unfailingly loyal to Berlusconi.
Only the right people have been chosen as his followers. People like Italy’s minister of Tourism.
Choosing the right people is a strategy which has paid handsomely. To date, despite many close calls, Berlusconi’s government has not lost a single confidence vote.
At one point a group of politicians allied to Berlusconi led by Gianfranco Fini woke up to the fact that they were perhaps ruling Italy on behalf of Berlusconi, for Berlusconi, and not for Italy and its population. This group upped arms and left.
For a while Berlusconi’s leadership and government looked very shaky and at one point came very close to losing a confidence vote. However, Berlusconi’s party closed ranks and more loyalists were rounded up to replace those who had jumped ship.
Some suspect Berlusconi buys loyalty, either in hard cash or in terms of favours. Whatever has happened, it has worked and although the Berlusconi government now has a reduced majority, it still commands enough of a majority to keep Berlusconi on top.
When necessary, Berlusconi can count upon enough people to vote for his government’s proposals to keep his party, and his leadership, afloat.
Berlusconi has set up Italy’s parliament to keep him in place for more or less as long as he likes. As long as he can keep the right number of people happy, he will stay in power at least until his term of office comes up for renewal in 2013.
All in a Name
The name of Berlusconi’s party was a deliberate choice. Il Popolo Della Libertà is a name designed to appeal to those in Italy who want the “liberty” to do more or less as they like. Social and environmental awareness does not form part of such liberty – being able to make vast amounts of cash does.
Berlusconi is a meal ticket and biting the feeding hand has never been wise. His supporters, or should that be “benefactors” will not bite Berlusconi for as long as he keeps feeding them.
Italians are very image conscious and successful people are revered in Italy. Berlusconi is successful and is greatly respected for his wealth and power.
Respect for Berlusconi may have dwindled a little, but has not fallen enough to cause huge numbers of Italy’s population to march on Rome or Milan to call on him to go.
Yes, there have been public anti-Berlusconi protests, but nothing like the Arab Spring has hit Italy, and probably will not.
A Family ManBerlusconi has worked hard to create the impression he is a family man.
On the run up to elections, glossy photographs of he and his children have been used to bolster this image.
This is not a surprise – life in Italy revolves around tight-knit family units, so someone who was not family-friendly would not have been at all palatable to voters.
Even Berlusconi’s recent divorce from his wife Veronica Lario does not seem to have tarnished Berlusconi’s family-friendliness.
Divorce proceedings which could have turned very, very messy, were carefully stage-managed to ensure Berlusconi’s image was maintained, if not brushed up a little (Oh, poor guy, look how much money he has to pay to his ex?).
Not only this, but frequent reports of Berlusconi carrying out fatherly duties make it into Italy’s papers. This helps Berlusconi continue to mesh with Italy’s strong family ideals. His support as a parent is reciprocated by the very public words of daughter Marina Berlusconi who chides those who bait her dear father.
Divorce is not uncommon in Italy and is not regarded as anything out of ordinary. Italians do not feel Berlusconi’s separation from his wife is anything which should prevent him from being prime minister. Neither do I.
He’s a Nice Guy
Yes, Berlusconi tells bad jokes, acts the clown, is sexist and even says Italy is a terrible country, but he’s fun and charismatic. He’s apparently a charming person in the flesh too – as I’ve been told by someone who has met him.
Berlusconi is one of the people. He is very Italian and plenty of Italians love him for this.
Up to this point, as you will have noted, in the eyes of many Italians, there is nothing which justifies Berlusconi’s standing down. So far, he has not.
In the final part of this examination of Berlusconi’s longevity, I’ll look at some more factors which have played their part in maintaining Berlusconi’s continued presence in Italy, such as his legal woes.
That Berlusconi likes pretty young girls is no secret and it is something he has admitted himself.
Although the Rubygate sex scandal indicates that he may have gone too far, it has not damaged his reputation enough to bring him down.
Italy is a society which is very much male dominated and in which women are primarily sex symbols and child producers and not too much else – a fascist ideal, incidentally.
Watch one of Berlusconi’s television channels – any evening – and you’ll come across droves of scantily clad nubile young women. Italy’s men do not find all the girls at all distasteful, and even many of Italy’s women find all the semi-nudity not much more than harmless titillation.
When stories of Berlusconi’s sexual shenanigans hit the headlines, it’s no big deal for many Italians. Berlusconi is rich, powerful and likes pretty women, so he’s no more than a typical red-blooded Italian stallion.
Photo: Couresy of El Pais
Many Italian men regard Berlusconi’s sexual antics with a mixture of envy and respect. Even Italian women are aware that boys will be boys.
One suspects that if Berlusconi were to make one of his bunga bunga parties a public event, the queue would probably stretch from Berlusconi’s villa in Milan all the way to Rome.
At the end of the day, Italians really do not care what Berlusconi does in private.
Berlusconi’s Management of Italy
A number of economists and political scientists would argue that Silvio Berlusconi has done very little to solve Italy’s problems.
Yet despite the lacklustre performance of Italy’s economy, many Italians still enjoy a relatively high standard of living and Berlusconi’s government does not seem to have affected this markedly. Rampant tax evasion keeps plenty of pockets full too.
If Berlusconi had taken money out of the pockets of a large number of Italians, then calls for him to go would be much louder than they are now. Indeed, in amongst numerous other ever changing proposals, the new round of austerity measures threatens to clamp down on tax evasion (today) and may well leave Italian pockets containing less. If what is proposed comes to pass, Berlusconi will become unpopular and he knows it.
Prior to the economic crisis, and all the way up to July 2011, Berlusconi had been cleverly making promises to resuscitate Italy and, up until July this year, Italians continued to swallow his promising rhetoric.
In general though, and seeing as not much has changed either for the better or for the worse in Italy, Berlusconi can keep his place on the throne for as long as he likes as far as plenty of Italians are concerned.
The secret to Berlusconi’s success lies in his ability to create the impression his government is always on the verge of doing something. That something never actually seems to materialise and what little has been done has not done anything to change Italy for the better and for the common Italian, things are not much worse than before Berlusconi ascended to the throne.
Some Italians are beginning to wake up to the great Berlusconi conjuring trick, but others remain under his cleverly woven spell.
There are signs that the spell is about to be broken. The Berlusconi government’s handling of the creation of austerity measures for Italy has revealed that when the chips (and stock markets) are well and truly down, Berlusconi and his crew don’t seem to be able to know what to do.
Criticism from Abroad
The overriding attitude of many Italians is basically: Who cares what others think of Italy? Firstly, foreigners do not understand Italy; secondly, they are jealous (of all the pretty girls) – and it’s not as if their own countries are that much better anyway.
This is Berlusconi’s attitude too.
The majority of criticism from overseas falls off Berlusconi like water off the proverbial duck’s back. To keep the water falling, Berlusconi uses his media might to dilute or simply not report what others are saying about him.
Few Italians read newspapers, so very few Italians have the remotest idea of what is going on. This is yet another reason why Berlusconi stays at the top
If you’ve ever read, as I have, Paul Ginsborg‘s Italy and It’s discontents 1980 to 2001 (which does not appear to have ever been published in Italian), you will have noted how Ginsborg mentions the great Italian capacity for forgiveness. To err is very, very human in Italian eyes.
In Italy, those who make mistakes should be given another chance, and another, and another (repeat for several paragraphs). You only have to take a look at the number of Italian politicians with distinctly uninspiring track records who have been around for an eternity to understand just how incredibly forgiving Italians are.
Italians have forgiven Berlusconi for his past foibles. They may well forgive him again.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Italian attitude towards corruption is that it is part of doing business in Italy. If friendships cannot be forged, then the system of paying people off, right, left and centre, comes into play.
This way of dong things has always been, and probably always will be, the way Italy works. As mentioned in Part One, this Italian phenomenon is closely linked to the innate distrust of their fellows from which Italians suffer. Corruption is, after all, no more than buying friendship and trust. What’s wrong with that?
If Silvio Berlusconi has been paying backhanders to lubricate his business transactions, so what? Everybody else does it, so why should Berlusconi be any different?
Italians tend to think that all politicians are corrupt, so Berlusconi does not stand out for this at all. Indeed, and as covered in Part Two, many Italians are probably impressed with his self-serving laws. In his position, many would be doing the same. Perfectly normal and utterly furbo too.
Odd though it might sound, Berlusconi’s legal problems keep him in power. Why? Because if he were not playing the part of Italy’s prime minister, he may well be seeing out his retirement from behind the bars of one of Italy prisons.
Berlusconi has reportedly stated that the only reason he entered politics was to keep himself out of the clink. Furthermore, he got into politics to save his businesses from pending doom, or so said close associate of his, one Marcello Dell’Utri.
In fact, and ably assisted by two parliamentarians who also just happen to run his legal defence team, Berlusconi has kept himself from ending up behind bars.
A few delaying tactics here, the odd convenient law or two there, and bingo! No jail time.
Not only has Berlusconi used his political weight to keep his legal troubles at a controllable distance, he has also used his legal tangles to generate sympathy. Persecuted, he is, and he loves to tell everyone how he is the victim of a commie led conspiracy as well as how much he has had to pay his lawyers over the years.
Italians lap up Berlusconi’s pathos. Well, as mentioned previously, Italians are a forgiving people. Berlusconi knows this and plays on it for all it is worth.
The number of cases Berlusconi is embroiled in seems to vary from one day to the next and is inflated when deemed expedient. The figure 106 has been broached, whereas the actual total is around 25 according to a long Wikipedia Italy entry entirely dedicated to Berlusconi’s legal troubles.
Whereas the number and nature of the legal woes faced by Berlusconi may well have led to the downfall of politicians in other nations, in Italy, they virtually achieve the opposite and prop him up.
Yes, many of Italy’s opposition parties make a substantial contribution towards Berlusconi’s continued stability and have done so for quite a while. Indeed, it could be argued, and quite successfully too, that without Italy’s bungling opposition parties, Berlusconi would not be where he is today.
It has to be said that Berlusconi stands out as the one and only leader of his Popolo della Libertà party.
The same cannot really be said of the biggest opposition party the Partito Democratico (PD).
On paper, it looks as if one Rosy Bindi is the leader, but seeing as it is one Pier Luigi Bersani who seems to occupy the most air-time on television, observers from other planets could be forgiven for thinking Bersani is the leader. Then there are the other “leaders”. Lots of them, such as D’Alema, Fassino, Veltroni, and Franceschini, all of whom confusingly swarm around Bindi or Bersani like wasps assaulting a rubbish bin. The overriding impression this gives is that of complete incoherence.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
It is believed the PD is a moderate left wing party, but even this is far from clear. As for any semblance of direction, forget it! The PD lot has become very good at shouting recently – probably because they’ve heard that Berlusconi is getting old, or something like that.Italy’s voters have noticed that the PD do not really know what they are doing, and so has Silvio Berlusconi – which is why he has won elections three times, so far.
Aside from virtually zero direction, the PD is reactive and not proactive. It is led by a bunch of regurgitated politicians who simply do not know how to handle Berlusconi and his US style showmanship politics.
Berlusconi knows exactly what hits the right chord with Italians – he’s spent time and money studying the notes and has then composed an attractive sounding never-ending overture. Meanwhile, the PD is still playing the same old tunes which never really struck the right chords in the first place anyway. It’s not as if the PD mob have the most sparking of political track records either.
The predecessor (same faces as now) to the PD was given a chance to govern Italy back in 2006, but totally fluffed the opportunity owing to the continual bickering which seems to be so common to politics in Italy.
The PD just has not learnt from the past and seems to play the political game in a way which is out-dated and out-moded. And its members have faced, and are facing, accusations of corruption, so they come across as having no more integrity than the Berlusconi crowd. This is probably many Italians believe their politicians are all corrupt.
At times one wonders whether the PD deliberately works to keep Berlusconi in power. Maybe the continual bumbling combined with a refusal to modernize is intentional, and is a ploy to give the impression they are the “opposition” when really they are not and have no real interest in being so. The PD players earn fat salaries regardless of whether they are in government or not and will receive generous automatic pensions after they’ve managed to hang around in Italy’s parliament for long enough.
There are other opposition parties in Italy, but most are tiny. Unless they form alliances with one of the bigger beasts which inhabit Italy’s political zoo, these weeny parties have about as much effect as a tornado shelter made of toilet paper.
Only one opposition party continually harangues Berlusconi – the Italian Values party. This is led by former magistrate Antionio di Pietro who was a key player in investigations into Italy’s mid-90s “bribesville” scandals. But Di Pietro is suspected of having being “tainted” by his time in Italian politics and rumours about below the counter deals he is involved in exist, meaning that his integrity has become questionable in the eyes of many Italians. Whether this is true, or whether this feeling has come about as a result of manufactured information, is unclear. But planting a few seeds of doubt is often all that is needed.
In part, Berlusconi stays in power partly as a result of the so-called “Tina” syndrome. No, Tina is not the name of one of Berlusconi’s long line of young lady friends, it’s an acronym which stand for: There Is No Alternative. Zero. But Berlusconi also holds onto power relatively easily because he appears to be able to keep his party from imploding. For this, he has to be admired.
That Berlusconi uses what some might consider to be dubious business practices is no reason for him to stand down as prime minister in the eyes of many Italians.
His frequenting of young girls is not regarded as being prejudicial to his ability to run Italy, either.
On more than a few occasions between 2006 & 2011, between 60% and 70% of Italians considered Berlusconi to be a popular leader. In June 2011, Berlusconi’s popularity stood at around 42% according to an “Osservatorio Sociale Cercom” survey.
Berlusconi’s popularity as a leader has fallen recently and, as noted before, his mismanagement of much needed austerity and growth measures may cause his popularity to reach a record low point. But more than 40% of Italy’s population still believed Berlusconi was a fine leader in May 2011.
Having spoken to Italians about Berlusconi, a common opinion I have come across is – No, he’s not the greatest prime minister Italy has ever had – but there are no alternatives (TINA). And in answer to the question: Should he go? Italians tend to think he should not, owing to the fact that in this period of crisis, general elections would not be a good idea. Why? Because on the run up to elections, governments simply stop governing.
What escapes the attention of these hopeful souls, and what the current austerity measures fiasco is clearly revealing, is that Berlusconi & Co don’t really know how to govern.
Italians have been carefully cajoled and conditioned into their positive regard for their colourful leader, and this is where Berlusconi’s genius lies: his ability to play on and magnify those facets of the Italian psyche which have always existed and will continue to do so long long after Silvio Berlusconi is no more than a memory.
In conclusion, I’d say the main reason why Berlusconi continues to hold on to power is because he has worked very hard to create and to maintain Italians who will vote for him. Berlusconi’s primary tool is his extreme media might.
He’s done an exceptionally good job, has he not?
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