At the beginning of August, Silvio Berlusconi was finally found conclusively guilty of a crime (in this case fraud, but he still has an underage prostitution case and others to deal with).
The former prime minister of Italy and one of the country’s richest men was ultimately sentenced to one year in prison. While it’s unlikely he’ll actually see the inside of a jail due to his age, it should mean the end of his political career.
At least, it should in any normally-functioning modern democracy. In Italy, things are different.
Berlusconi’s supporters have been calling on Italy’s president to pardon Berlusconi, or at least limit his ban from politics. Some of his allies are threatening to resign from the coalition government, effectively forcing an election and (more than likely) another hung parliament. Berlusconi is personally refusing to back down.
Italy, desperately in need of political stability to help secure its economy, can’t risk this. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks says that Berlusconi is effectively “holding Italy hostage.”
If Nixon had refused to accept impeachment and had tried somehow to hang on to power, he would have been summarily removed. The same goes for any leader in Europe’s main democracies. Most will step down at the first sign of a serious criminal charge against them, aware that their parties will not support someone who damages their cause. The truly disquieting aspect of the present situation in Italy is not so much Berlusconi’s brazenness, but that his blackmail is possible and credible, that he has such complete control over such a large political party, and that he still commands considerable popular support. Astonishing as it may seem to those not familiar with the country, even serious newspapers and respectable commentators seem reluctant to insist on the enforcement of law, rarely mentioning the details of his crimes and actually giving credence to the argument that removing Berlusconi from the political scene would amount to disenfranchising the millions of voters who supported him at the previous election, as if there was no autonomous party in parliament to represent their views, as if they were not free to choose another leader before the next election.
Why is this acceptable in Italy? Parks goes on to examine a number of factors, including Berlusconi’s own charisma and huge personal fortune.
But the reason may lie with the political culture of Italy itself — as Park says, there exists a “widespread disbelief in Italy that politics could ever be cleaned up or made remotely fair.”