The Berlusconi Era Is Not Over Yet

By Duncan McDonnell

Twenty years ago this month, one of Italy's most successful businessmen, Silvio Berlusconi, was at his home near Milan preparing a speech to be broadcast by his television channels to the nation on January 26, 1994.

In it, he announced his decision to enter politics to save Italy from what he termed the "illiberal forces" of the Left and to usher in a new era of prosperity.

Despite many controversies and scandals, Berlusconi is still a central figure in public life. His 20th anniversary in politics raises two key questions: why has he lasted so long? And how much longer is he going to last?

In their 2012 book, The Democratic Leader, Griffith University professors John Kane and Haig Patapan note that leaders in democracies are faced with a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, the public sees strong leaders as necessary for democracies; on the other, the public tends to distrust powerful political elites and views them as corrosive of democracy. So how can democratic political leaders be strong without also appearing as the symbols of anti-democratic elite power?

Berlusconi's solution to this conundrum lies at the basis of his appeal: he has constantly presented himself as someone who first became a strong and successful leader outside politics, before deciding to apply those skills as an outsider within the political world to break up the power of elites supposedly threatening democracy. He has always presented himself as the target of those same elites which, seeing a powerful democratic leader opposing them, have sought to destroy him (for Berlusconi, these include the Left, the judges, the state media, intellectuals and, at times, foreign leaders, the markets and the EU).

In Berlusconi's narrative, he thus squares Kane and Patapan's circle by taking on the role of the strong and good leader who will rescue democracy from the clutches of the bad elites. And at election after election, many Italians have bought into it. Surveys show he has constantly been seen by voters as the most dynamic leader in Italian politics. His self-portrayal as victim of the elites has given him a ready-made excuse both for the failures of his governments to produce economic growth and for his own legal troubles. It may seem implausible to most international observers, but millions of Italians have been willing to accept Berlusconi's versions of events and believe that only he truly has the people's wellbeing at heart.

The merit for this success, however, is not just Berlusconi's. He has been helped enormously by those elites he opposes. The centre-left has for decades resembled more a vague political space, full of squabbling factions, than a political force with clear policies and credible leadership. The grotesque contortions and slowness of the Italian legal system do nothing to inspire public trust. As for those sections of the media that are not controlled by Berlusconi, most of them deserve their poor reputation.

Like so many of Italy's elites, they are dominated by ageing, mediocre men whose capacity for innovation ran out well before the end of the last century.

Berlusconi, of course, had a bad 2013. His party failed to win the February general election and found itself forced to become a reluctant junior coalition partner in government with its centre-left enemies.

More seriously for Berlusconi personally, in August he was finally convicted of a crime, when the Court of Cassation ruled he was partly responsible for tax fraud committed by his business group.

As a result, in November he was expelled from the Senate and, this northern spring, he will have to serve a sentence of 9-10 months of community service. Crucially for his political career, he is also banned from standing at elections for the next six years.

So is this the end of the Berlusconi era in Italian politics? Not yet. Following his ejection from the Senate, he moved his party into opposition. Although a minority (including several ministers) remained in the governing coalition, this may not turn out to be a damaging split so much as an advantageous divide-and-conquer strategy. In other words, Berlusconi now gets the benefits of being in opposition during a time of unpopular austerity, while retaining friends in the cabinet who have said they will run alongside his party whenever the next general election takes place.

Berlusconi will obviously not be able to stand as the centre-right's candidate then, but he will almost certainly decide who does. Indeed, opinion polls last month showed that despite everything that has happened, his coalition would stand a fair chance of coming first if elections were held now. Given his age and the likelihood of further legal troubles in the coming months, the odds are still stacked against Berlusconi celebrating a quarter of a century in politics. But given the man we are talking about, it would be foolish to bet too much against him.

Duncan McDonnell is Marie Curie Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.

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