Commentary Magazine

Decline, Italian-Style

The national elections in Italy this past April ended in an even split. By the narrowest margin in Italian history (.06 percent), an aggregate of leftist parties fronted by Romano Prodi, a former prime minister, edged out the center-Right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party—a coalition that, in slightly different incarnations, had governed Italy for seven months in 1994-95 and then without interruption for the past five years. In Italy’s Senate, the Berlusconi coalition received a slight (0.2 percent) majority but lost anyway as a consequence of a complex system of seat allotments. But Forza Italia, which itself garnered 24 percent of the national vote, actually emerged from the elections as the largest single political party in Italy.

This Florida-style outcome, which has thrust Italy into profound confusion, could not have come at a worse time. The country’s economy has been in a gradual but relentless tailspin that is now approaching the point of national emergency. As recently as the 1970’s, Italy could boast of having displaced England as the third most productive country in the world. Today it finds itself at the very bottom of the group of industrialized nations, on the verge of falling into the ranks of the developing world. Last year, it occupied the slot just above Botswana in the World Economic Forum’s annual index of economic competitiveness.

Italy’s problems include a record public deficit, an unsustainable pension system, an aging work force, a light-industry sector reeling under Asian assault, and a steady deterioration in the national infrastructure (airports, rail network, roads, and the like). Demographically the country is in the basement, with the number of annual deaths exceeding births. According to a recent report in the Financial Times, it may even be forced to abandon the Eurozone (as the nations using the euro and subject to the EU’s budgetary strictures call themselves), until now the only significant restraint on a ballooning public deficit.



Parlous though Italy’s condition may be, concern for it hardly inhibited a post-election free-for-all. After the initial results came in, Berlusconi repeatedly proposed a government of national unity or some other arrangement suggestive of cooperation between the two halves of Italy’s divided body politic. Unsurprisingly, Prodi and his allies—a long-entrenched political class that has ached for unimpaired restoration to power—reacted icily to the idea.

Their response reflected, among other things, the Italian Left’s utter disdain for Berlusconi and all he represents. In the eyes of the Left, Berlusconi is not a statesman but an aberration—a criminal tycoon, a shameless monopolist, a reactionary clown whose verbal gaffes, hair plugs, and facelift are a national embarrassment. His elimination as prime minister was met by a sigh of relief: Italy would again have, in Prodi’s words, a “governo serio”—a serious government.

But Prodi probably spoke too soon. To begin with, the winners, less a genuine coalition than a sprawling assemblage encompassing everything from center-Left Catholics to hard-line Communists, were unable to achieve a viable power-sharing agreement among themselves, and may not have succeeded in doing so by the time this article is published. Further complicating matters, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Italy’s eighty-five-year-old president, whose mandate was to expire at the end of May, announced that he would relinquish his office promptly, even though renewal for another term was considered a near-certainty. In doing so, the president, a figurehead whose powers nevertheless include the appointment of ministers, appeared determined to pass the buck to his successor. Unless he were to change his mind, this would render even more unlikely the prompt installation of a new cabinet.

As for the ever-truculent Berlusconi, after mounting an obstinate challenge to the election results, complete with allegations of fraud, he promised a “hard” opposition to the Prodi regime “not only within . . . parliament but outside.” Setting aside the possibility of serious social unrest, or a miracle along the lines of Germany’s recent Grosse Koalition, the more likely outcome is that the dust will eventually settle on another of those fleeting governments so typical of post-Fascist Italy. Not for nothing is it said that Italians change governments the way other people change their underwear.



In trying to understand what the April elections wrought, one can do worse than to contemplate their most striking feature: the tightest conceivable outcome produced in the face of widespread predictions of a landslide defeat for Berlusconi and triumph for the Left. This is especially interesting when one considers that Berlusconi’s great weakness was said to lie in his profoundly unpopular decision to join the United States-led coalition in Iraq in 2003. But as voters well know, the bulk of Italy’s many problems lie not in its foreign policy, which is nearly irrelevant, but in the domestic sphere. Iraq notwithstanding, the impressive results scored by Berlusconi suggest that when it comes to addressing those core problems, a majority of Italians continue to trust him over his many detractors.

Seeking to make sense of the close vote, media pundits in Italy and the United States have resorted to pop psychology, theorizing that “Italians, at bottom, are a conservative people,” or that the Italian electorate harbors a “secret sense of sympathy for Berlusconi.” In fact, however, Italians are anything but a “conservative people.” To the contrary, leftist attitudes and mores have been all but pervasive, at all levels, throughout the country’s post-Fascist history. Even today, in 2006, calling someone a “conservatore” is akin to calling him a reactionary, and the expression “man of the Right” is close to an insult; Italian conservatives themselves avoid the label.

No less difficult to accept is the notion that Berlusconi exerts some sort of secret attraction over the Italian people. In reality, far from mindlessly sympathizing with Berlusconi’s personality, most Italians evince a pragmatic appreciation both of Berlusconi the man, defects and all, and of his accomplishments in office, controversial and imperfect as they were.

There is certainly no denying those imperfections, evident not least in Berlusconi’s lackluster handling of the economy—the very sector that this successful businessman had promised would be the showcase of his administration. But there is also no denying that he did try. His first attempt at economic reform, a plan to liberalize labor regulations, cost the life of the adviser who had devised it, the economist Marco Biagi, who was murdered in early 2002 by remnants of the Red Brigades terrorist group. A substantially watered-down version of the plan was ultimately enacted. It resulted in reducing unemployment to its present rate of 7.7 percent, which is hardly the worst in Western Europe.

But that was about all. An elaborate proposal to alleviate fiscal pressure on growth was defeated almost in its entirety. No headway was possible in reforming the steeply progressive income tax, or on overhauling Italy’s profoundly burdensome and unsustainable pension system, the most extravagant in the Western world. Nor could anything be done about the inefficient and increasingly expensive health system, whose fortunes admittedly depend more on regional authorities than on the national government. Stabs at improving infrastructure were impeded by local interests, by fears of ecological damage, or by lack of funds.



Arguably, these failures were due less to any lack of will or competence on the part of Berlusconi than to the unstable nature of his own political coalition (as eclectic as the one that currently defines the Left), combined with the determined actions of his opponents to block him at every turn. Not surprisingly, these are the same interests, loosely speaking, that have been seeking to impede progress toward economic modernization elsewhere in Europe as well. What Berlusconi faced was not so different from what the Chirac government in France encountered in its recent effort to achieve some flexibility in French labor laws. In each country, a center-Right government found itself subject to the blackmail of an “activist” class intent on halting any effort to increase personal responsibility in the workplace, restrict the power of the unions, or mitigate the artificial rigidities of the labor market.

Leading news media in Europe and the U.S. have devoted thoughtful attention to the quandaries of Chirac and Villepin in the face of mass protests organized by the ossified Left. Unfortunately, little comprehension, let alone sympathy, has been extended to Berlusconi on the same grounds. This is a great pity, for his attempts at economic reform were genuine, and his inability to see them through was symptomatic of much that ails Europe as a whole. But then France is France, while Italy—well, Italy is still widely regarded as a nation of mandolin players and pizza makers, and Berlusconi, who worked as a singer on cruise ships before becoming the 37th richest man in the world, is just a buffoon. Or so we have been led to think.



Any final judgment of Berlusconi is bound to be ambiguous, but certain facts may help in comprehending his life and career.

To begin with, he never pretended to be a professional politician. A bit like Ross Perot, he entered politics only upon becoming convinced that there was no one else competent or willing to head the forces of the emerging center-Right in Italy. His rise began in the mid-70’s, when the country had entered a period of widespread unemployment, turmoil, and violence, highlighted in 1978 by the kidnap-assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro.

In those years, Berlusconi, then in his early forties, was drawing on his experience as an entertainer and disc jockey to build the foundations of a media empire. It was said at the time that in Italy you could go nowhere in business, especially if you were just starting out, unless you were prepared to grease the palm of the political mafia so as to bypass the calcified bureaucracy and extortionate regulatory apparatus. The most durable government of the time was headed by Bettino Craxi, a self-styled “socialist” who managed to suppress the terrorist groups but who also, true to form, operated a personal clearing house by means of which he transferred millions of dollars in proceeds from government corruption to Swiss bank accounts.

It was with Craxi that Berlusconi had most of his dealings. The major result of these was the repeal of a law mandating a single, state-controlled television network—the last such law on the books of any developed country. It is typical of Berlusconi’s methods that, even as he served his own interests by establishing the first private television network in Italian history, he simultaneously made possible a major advance toward a sine qua non of a functioning democracy, namely, freedom of expression. By going into competition with the state, he also furnished himself with a useful tool for spreading the sort of free-market, anti-regulation, small-government ideas that in the United States were gaining strength with the growth of Reaganism.

The 70’s also saw the first conservative reaction in Italy to the semi-anarchic conditions created by successive left-wing governments. This principally took the form of a movement headed by Italy’s most famous journalist, Indro Montanelli, who in 1974 founded Il Giornale, the first reputable newspaper of right-wing opposition. Based in Milan, the capital of business and industry, and fueled by the same aspirations then spreading in the industrial milieu, Il Giornale enjoyed a period of growing popularity in which it was instrumental in putting a stop to the Communist effort to enter the government.

In search of financial support, Montanelli found it in Berlusconi, who had started his own campaign for the modernization of the Italian economy. Their collaboration flourished for over a decade, until public resentment of entrenched government misrule gave rise in 1992 to the so-called “clean-hands” revolution and the swift collapse of the left-wing political parties that had dominated Italy since 1946.

Faced with a tabula rasa, Berlusconi now sought to convince Montanelli to enter the political arena. When the latter declined, Berlusconi, despite his lack of political experience, decided to go ahead on his own. At the time, a substantial part of the Italian Right was still confined to the political ghetto. But the efficiency and rapidity with which Berlusconi organized his new party demonstrated a talent for political action, and the 1994 elections brought him to the first of his two premierships—short-lived, but a prelude of things to come.

Did he, as some allege, enter government as a means of shielding his companies from bankruptcy and avoiding prosecution for past business misdeeds? There may be an element of truth here, but it has never been proved. Berlusconi himself has argued that, had he not found “refuge” in power, he would have been unable to defend himself against a slew of false accusations intended to cut short his political ambitions. He has also been harshly criticized for failing to relinquish control of his television empire once in power; indeed, he added to it by acquiring the influence routinely exercised by the Italian government over the state television network, RAI. But here too there are extenuating circumstances, including legal ones. In any case, whatever monopoly Berlusconi may have enjoyed over the airwaves has to be balanced against the formidable array of the Italian print media—an impregnable redoubt of the Left for the last six decades.



In sum, if so many Italians remain prepared to cast their lot with Berlusconi, with all of his faults, there must be solid reasons for it.

For one thing, many clearly found comfort in the fact that the second Berlusconi administration presented that rarity in Italian politics: a government capable of staying in power for the full five years of its constitutionally authorized mandate. For another thing, during the years that Berlusconi and Forza Italia dominated the scene, Italians were finally able to repudiate their longstanding and hopelessly corrupt system of power-sharing among parties and to adopt something approaching the Anglo-American division of politics into two blocs. However weak, the present coalitions represent a significant advance over the preceding decades of political fragmentation.

For still another, related thing, it is beyond cavil that, in the Berlusconi years, Italians were able to glimpse for the first time the beginning of the end of an entire national life based on clientelism, sinecures, and the political misappropriation of all lucrative positions. Last but not least, the Berlusconi years proved how utterly baseless were the hysterical predictions of an imminent return to Italian Fascism. To the contrary, the participation in national politics of the center-Right—a substantial sector of public opinion that had been ostracized for a half-century after Fascism’s demise—actually helped bring closure to one of the most divisive chapters in Italian history.



These are no slight achievements, and if the April elections proved anything, it is that Italians are not as prepared to overlook them as Berlusconi’s opponents would desire. In the final analysis, half of Italy’s voters still support Berlusconi because, while their love affair with him may be over, their dislike and fear of his adversaries remain very much alive.

The truly disturbing fact is that the winners in the April elections were the same types and in some cases the same persons who, during their long decades in control, set the stage for the economic disaster now coming to a head—and, in the last five years, effectively preempted most of Berlusconi’s reformist agenda. The Financial Times (as reported in the Italian press) may have put it best in calling the Prodi alliance victory “the opposite of what is needed now.” In fact, nothing about those who now hope to attain exclusive power in Italy augurs a performance even remotely adequate to the monumental problems the country is facing.

In view of the wider and not dissimilar problems affecting the European Union as a whole, Italy’s experience, with all of its local peculiarities, is of far more than local interest.


About the Author

Mauro Lucentini served as New York correspondent for a number of Italian publications, including Il Giornale from 1974 to 1984. His most recent book, Rome, has just been published in English translation by Pallas Athene of London.

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