He is the longest-serving Italian Prime Minister of the post-war era. He has been Prime Minister on three separate occasions, surviving seemingly-fatal political defeats to return and to triumph. For the Italian Left, he is Margaret Thatcher and Count Dracula, Margaret Thatcher and the Joker rolled into one. They’ve defeated him time and time again, and still he comes back. How does the man they call Il Cavaliere – “The Knight” – do it? And more importantly, can he do it again?
Berlusconi launched his career in a time of national crisis. The Tangentopoli – “Bribesville” – scandal implicated virtually every senior politician in a network of bribery and corruption. The former Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, emigrated to Tunisia to avoid charges. It destroyed the Christian Democratic Party, which had dominated Italian politics since the end of the Second World War. The charismatic media mogul – and owner of the European giants AC Milan – was able to depict himself as a national saviour, at the head of his new party Forza Italia – named for the football chant – and swept a tide of anti-politics sentiment to power.
The reality, however, of Berlusconi’s decision to enter politics, was far more sordid. He wasn’t looking to save the nation – he wanted to save his businesses from the threat of left-wing regulation. His first stint in politics was enough to do that, but it also alerted the Italian justice system to his own involvement in Tangentopoli. A conviction foundered due to the statute of limitations, but corruption allegations and prosecutions have dogged him ever since. When his first government collapsed – the original Forza was far more heterodox than the centre-right movement it would birth – and he was defeated by Romano Prodi, he looked finished.
But if you own one of the country’s most popular football clubs and a large chunk of the media, you are never quite defeated, and unlike the Italian Left, Berlusconi had no problem cosying up to the Catholic Church. A combination of an aggressive media, a sure touch on the campaign trail, and some eye-catching signings for AC Milan – Silvio has never been shy of using the Rossoneri as an electoral ploy – made him an irresistible candidate in 2001, and he was back again. The song remained the same – cronyism, crude alliances with the hard and far right, social conservatism and a casual acceptance of corruption and tax evasion – but to Berlusconi’s credit, he was able to take his government to a full-five-year term. He was once again defeated by Prodi, but his departing government had slipped the new administration a poison pill. Changes to the Senate’s electoral system that weakened the incoming Democrats and made a second election – which Berlusconi won – all but inevitable.
Berlusconi’s success is a combination of talent – he has the raw ability and charisma to fight and win elections, to get away with posing as a guardian of public morality, to hold together broad coalitions – and a powerful network of influence. But even that wasn’t enough, and at the fall of his government, he really looked to be finished, deserted by his allies in both the Lega Nord – a populist party from the prosperous North – and on his own right-flank, from the former neo-fascist and Berlusconi protégée Gianfranco Fini. By the time that the Eurozone crisis was making itself felt in Italy, he had effectively lost his majority. Small wonder that he was turfed out in favour of Mario Monti’s technocratic administration.
Berlusconi has been left for dead before, but this time feels different. He’s older, more personally tainted – his divorce from his wife, Veronica Lario, has also put his relationship with the Catholic Church in jeopardy – has fewer allies outside his own outfit, the Freedom Party – born out of Forza’s ashes – and discredited against an Italian Left that looks to be in better shape than in times past. He can’t even use AC Milan as an electoral prop – they look set to lose two of their greatest stars, the striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the centre-half Thiago Silva, to the oil-rich Paris Saint Germain – not anymore. The election of 2013 looks like an election too far.
Except, except…they said that in 1996. They said that in 2006.
And yet, Silvio survived.
This Week’s European Talking Points
- To briss or not to briss? Germany is divided over whether or not circumsion is acceptable or not. A court in Cologne has ruled against the practice, sparking a near-existential crisis. Legislation is expected to provide for legal circumsion, but don’t rule out a battle in the highest courts.
- Oh, Valerie! Francois Hollande used his Bastille Day speech to ‘clarify’ Mme. Trierwaller’s role. She will not serve as an official First Lady and will continue as a journalist…except “when protocol demands otherwise”. Eh? France’s GALA magazine – Hello! with a beret – has suggested that the two will formally split in the autumn.
- In Spain, hundreds of people are demanding an official enquiry into the now-abandoned practice of ‘baby-snatching’. Franco’s regime allowed for Socialist families to have their children taken, and the practice continued well past the end of the regime, with ‘baby-snatching’ occurring in hospitals until the ‘90s. This enquiry could reveal all manner of skeletons.