A boor given to embarrassing behavior, an American lackey on Iraq, a clown. He toes the U.S. line of not dealing with terrorists, yet his government may have secretly paid a ransom to free two kidnapped Italian aid workers. These are some of the darts critics throw at Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Yet, none seems to matter to the Italian electorate as Berlusconi has managed to hold onto power. What explains his mystique?
To Italians who had seen lifelong politicians run their state to the ground and cover it with shame, Berlusconi's rise as a political force was a fresh start. The continuing failure of the Italian political system to represent the aspirations, dreams and needs of Italy’s average citizens has helped keep his grip on the helm of state.
The famous Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) anti-corruption sweep that ousted Italy’s postwar political elite in the 1990s made room for Berlusconi’s rise. The Tangentopoli corruption scandal confirmed the popular impression that all politicians were from a party-based oligarchy that perpetuated regimes of privilege for politicians and their chosen “special interests” or constituencies.
Government by coalition prevailed in Italy from the end of World War II, an arrangement in which majority and minority parties co-managed Italian political life. The downfall in the late 1980s of the Christian Democrats, the centrist party that governed Italy alone or in coalitions without interruption, revealed a labyrinth of bribes and kickbacks that consumed the entire political system. Even the Communist Party, which had floated above the fray and was only peripherally touched by the corruption scandals, was infected by the virus of profiteering.
With the resulting investigation of political leaders and parliamentarians, the Italian political system crumbled like a house of cards. Arrests and convictions decapitated the Christian Democrats, who split in at least three groups to become a shadow of what once Italy’s most powerful party. The Socialist Party, which led the governing coalition from the mid-’80s to the early ‘90s, was swept away by the uproar. Its leader Bettino Craxi—the longest-serving prime minister of postwar Italy, until Berlusconi equaled his record last month—fled to Tunisia to escape arrest.
In this climate of chaos, institutional crisis and economic recession, Berlusconi—a self-made billionaire with extensive interests in real estate, media and publishing—made his first move for control of the Italian political system.
Voters believed he knew the value of hard work, and he never missed an opportunity to stress that this was what set him apart from his opponents. Voters ignored his left-wing critics, who accused him of belonging to the Loggia P2, a covert Masonic organization that conspired to control the political system since the 1970s. Voters ignored his 1988 conviction for perjury for denying his P2 ties, and that he was under investigation for corruption and bribery.
With his media empire Berlusconi has had no problem shaping public opinion to his liking. He conveys the image of an average guy who happens to have the means to launch a personal crusade to save Italy from the grip of leftists and jaded politicians. He founded the Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party, calling for the emancipation of the average citizen from the intrusions of an overbearing state. He won the majority of the popular vote and earned the right to form a new government.
The first Berlusconi government lasted about 6 months. He lacked the numbers to rule alone. As the coalition he formed fell apart, his government was forced to resign. But he rose again in 5 years. A bickering center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi took over, then fell apart in 1998, followed by a series of governments led by technocrats, including Massimo D’Alema, a former Communist. This political merry-go-round further disenchanted the electorate.
The second half of the 1990s saw the rise of a strong “me first” mentality among average Italians. Gone were the anti-fascist ideals of post-Resistance Italy. Hedonistic personal improvement and leisure became the national preoccupation. In this climate, Berlusconi’s call to get the state out of people’s personal lives, meaning, out of the citizens’ path to wealth, resonated strongly with former Christian Democrats, disgraced ex-Socialists and the so-called “qualunquisti” or the growing portion of the public disinterested in politics and oblivious of the nation’s history.
It can no longer be denied that today’s Italians are markedly different, politically and culturally, from those of the first republic born out of World War II. Berlusconi, as a modern-day model of personal success, appeals to these new Italians. His near-monopoly of the TV market and overwhelming influence on the Italian media conveniently perpetuate popular tendencies. Berlusconi understands that Italy needs a new ethic and puts forth a cocktail of American-style-almost Reaganesque-free-market values.
Left commentators, political analysts and parties have yet to provide a real alternative to Italians’ yearning for personal wealth and freedom. Rehashed ideological programs or tweaked versions of Berlusconi’s political agenda won’t do. Berlusconi may be a “buffoon,” but he has feet planted on the zeitgeist. Italy’s center and left reformers have their work cut out for them: How do you solve a problem like the modern Italian mentality?
Paolo Pontoniere is the San Francisco-based correspondent of Focus, Italy's leading monthly magazine.