Down But Never Out

Why Silvio Berlusconi is suddenly popular again.


Two days after he was stripped of his seat in the Italian Senate, derided by the national and international press, deserted by half of his own party’s congressmen and senators, Silvio Berlusconi suddenly got popular again. He saw a 6 percent bounce in his approval rating (albeit to 26 percent) and his center -right coalition enjoys a unexpected 35 percent approval in the polls, slightly ahead of the center-left Democratic Party (PD). The Silvio saga is like a Quentin Tarantino movie: you shoot the bad guy, dump him in a reservoir, then bury him in a poisoned landfill, yet he still comes charging back at you.

But talk about a fall from grace. The three-time prime minister was convicted of tax fraud, and stripped of his passport and political immunity. Any judge — and he has many personal rivals in the judicial system — can order his arrest anytime. As of now, however, he won’t be going to jail. Italian law stipulates that septuagenarians can choose alternate sentencing; Berlusconi has opted for community service. "They want me to scrub toilets on my knees," he publicly complains.

So how come he is not history yet? Why does he still cast such a shadow on Italian and European politics? Because the press corps and scores of sophisticated political analysts — mesmerized by the lurid tales of Bunga Bunga parties, scantily clad young ladies, and excesses worthy of a modern-day Satyricon — often lost sight of the real target. For almost 20 years, since he decided to found his party Forza Italia in 1994, Berlusconi has interpreted and channeled the deep political sentiments of almost half of the Italian voters. His home turf: a staunch, historically-rooted blend of resentments, anti-tax fervor, distrust in government and political parties, and anticommunism. While the old champ may be leaving the stadium in tatters, the fans, are still there.

For two decades, the left, and many international observers, described Berlusconi and Forza Italia as a "plastic party," one lobbed into office by ignorant, crass voters, drugged by heavy, daily doses of commercial TV shows (pumped, of course, through Berlusconi’s TV empire). But now a more accurate analyses are changing the paradigm, offering a much more focused picture of contemporary Italy. The historian Giovanni Orsina, deputy director of the School of Government at Luiss University in Rome and visiting professor at Sciences-Po Paris, stirred the waters with his new book Il berlusconismo nella storia d’Italia, which makes the case that  Berlusconi is not a "freak accident" in Italian politics, but that his populist, bizarre mix of anti-status quo propaganda and reluctance toward robust economic reforms, has been part of the national DNA since unification, in 1861.

The "Berlusconi miracle" — namely, inventing a political party in a matter of weeks in 1994 — is not just a by-product of his colossal media empire. According to Orsina, the real sparkle comes from an old, national cultural attitude. Berlusconi appealed to something deep within the Italian political soul: "You guys do not need reforms," he said. "Everything is all right with you. Do not listen to moral sermons, do not try to be better, you are all right. Enjoy."

Orsina’s Berlusconi was the perfect reverse of John F. Kennedy’s appeal to young Americans: Ask what your country can do for you, take it as much of it as you can, and live happily. Indeed, while the majority of voters employed by the state vote for the center-left, the independent workers, the self-employed, the entrepreneurs have long been Berlusconi’s base, faithfully casting their votes for "Silvio" — especially in the North and in the first 10 years of his political adventure. These are not bored housewives or lazy couch potatoes: many of them are educated, aware of technological and social innovations, yet they remain skeptical of the left’s agenda.

So who will they turn to now? Berlusconi is now a fatally wounded leader; he is (at least, officially) gone from politics. The best political obituary for Berlusconi was offered by his former ally Giuliano Urbani, the co-founder of Forza Italia. Back in 1993, Urbani, a moderate political science professor in Florence, went to Gianni Agnelli, then Fiat chairman. "All the centrist parties are broken in Italy, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, the Republicans," said Urbani. "If we do not start a center-right party, the former communist, led by Achille Occhetto, will win the next elections. You, Mr. Agnelli should be our new leader." Politely, Agnelli declined the offer and Urbani took the project to Berlusconi, from Turin and Fiat to Milan and Mediaset. Berlusconi eagerly agreed, galvanized his base, and Forza Italia was born.

Urbani has now left active politics and in a rare interview with leftist daily La Repubblica summed up the experience: "We had two points in our agenda, to implement liberal economic reforms in Italy while stopping the communists." But the results were bittersweet: "We indeed stopped the communists, no leader in the Democratic Party today can be called a communist. This was a success. Conversely, we failed to spur the reforms. This is our failure."

Today, Italy’s voters are split in three chunks. Beppe Grillo and his maverick Five Star Party enjoy roughly 20-25 percent of votes and keep hammering on a protectionist, anti-European platform. The center-left, meanwhile, is stuck at 34 percent with Florence’s mayor Matteo Renzi now the PD front runner for the Dec. 8 primaries. Indeed, he’s already challenging Premier Enrico Letta for power. Savvy President Giorgio Napolitano has now to rein in the two ambitious leftist champions: only one can be the party flag-bearer and the new prime minister.

On the center-right front, Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano and his former "Berlusconiani" allies will try to buy time. But the new party is untested. According to Renzi, "at the polls Alfano is just roadkill for Berlusconi." It may be slightly crude way of questioning Alfano’s political strength, but it speaks to an essential truth: he’s got a solid base but not enough to win a majority.

For the Democratic Party and the center-left to have a chance at forming a stable majority, they’ll have to conquer a decent chunk of moderate voters, while regaining at least a slice of votes lost to Grillo. It’s not exactly an easy maneuver: in fact, it would be a "triangulation" worthy of Bill Clinton and Dick Morris — talk to the center while consolidating the left flank. Only Renzi seems capable of achieving this feat, but it’ll be a tough sell: leftist websites already accuse him of being a Berlusconiano.

Which, of course, bring us back to Berlusconi. His voters are up for grabs. And though he insists he will remain as head of Forza Italia, he cannot run; instead, he toys with idea of crowning one of his daughters as his political heir. But he’s not going quietly. Indeed, the 77-year-old may be have been sentenced, but in a sense he’s never been more free. He’s the opposition now — the onus of dealing with taxes, spending cuts, balancing the budget, and curbing Italy’s monstrous public debt is left to others. He can attack Germany’s Angela Merkel, the euro, austerity, whatever as the real culprit — who cares if Italy will be chairing the European Union in j
ust six months. A populist Berlusconi is a dangerous Berlusconi. And he knows his audience.

Italy has not been growing for more than a generation, unemployment has skyrocketed in the south, two million young men and women under 25 are out of school and out of work, wasting time at home, depressed, bitter, and soon to be unemployable. Thirty years ago, Italians under 30 were making more money than their parents; today the opposite is true. Meanwhile, Italian companies struggle in the global economy, weighed down by heavy taxes that are also taking a tool on the middle class. The billionaires and their companies, of course, continue to elude these garnishments.

Italy desperately needs economic reforms — but this requires a stable cabinet, capable of spurring growth, cutting taxes, and curbing the debt that is bleeding the country of innovation. Ask political leaders of almost any party: they all privately agree on this agenda. But when asked who’s going to implement it, they simply smile and say: "E chi lo sa?" Who knows.

For years, there’s been a line of thinking — that Italy is paralyzed because Berlusconi was in charge. But what if Berlusconi was in charge because the country is paralyzed?

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