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The return of Berlusconi

Print edition : May 26, 2001

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Elections to the Italian Parliament result in a thumping victory for Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and former Prime Minister. But will his new term be any different from his corruption-tainted tenure that began in 1994?

SEATED behind an impressive desk, with a magnificent painting for a backdrop, Italian media magnate Silvio Berlusconi had the air of an Executive President rather than just a Prime Minister.

And well he might. Legislative elections held on May 13 gave his House of Freedoms coalition a comfortable majority in both Houses of Parliament, with Berlusconi's own party, Forza Italia (Let's go, Italy), emerging as the single largest group. Moreover, so large is his margin of victory that he will no longer have to depend on his unreliable ally, Umberto Bossi, the chain-smoking leader of the xenophobic and federalist Northern League.

Of the 630 seats in the Lower House or the Chamber of Deputies, the House of Freedoms won 368 while the centre-left Olive Tree alliance claimed 242 and the Communists 11. In the Senate, Berlusconi's coalition won 177 of the 315 seats while the moderate Left won 125. The Communists obtained three seats and independent candidates 10. Francesco Rutelli, the 47-year-old former Mayor of Rome who was the other contender to the Prime Minister's post, admitted defeat, and said the Left would function as an incisive, vigilant and responsible Opposition.

Disunity and lack of a coherent electoral strategy contributed to the defeat of the leftists. The left-wing alliance had zeroed in on the controversy surrounding Berlusconi's wealth, his conflict of interest and his problems with the law (he has been under investigation for tax evasion, bribery and fraud). The strategy boomeranged, for it made the industrialist and former Prime Minister seem the victim of a vilification campaign.

What could otherwise have been a close contest ended up being a plebiscite in favour of Berlusconi. His party also widened its base by nibbling at the traditional constituencies of both his main coalition partners - the Northern League and the reformed former fascist party, the Alleanza Nazionale. The League's vote share fell to below 4 per cent while that of the National Alliance fell from 15 to 12 per cent.

The son of a bank clerk, Berlusconi, the balding, 65-year-old former cruise-ship crooner, is an elegant man. Through his own hyped-up life story and his television channels, he has been able to sell a certain image of himself - one that is made up in equal parts of money, physical beauty and crass consumerism. He projects this image through his immense wealth and power, sparkling implanted teeth, immaculately laundered shirts, brilliantly polished shoes, vast country estates, numerous villas, beautiful - if somewhat vulgarly turned-out - second wife Veronica and three small children. He is what every average Italian would like to be - rich, elegant, successful and presumably happy. Today Berlusconi holds middle Italy in the hollow of his palm.

A day after the results, the Prime Minister-elect solemnly addressed his compatriots, promising to withdraw from politics if he failed to keep his campaign pledges. He also called upon Italians to put the bitter disputes of the campaign behind them. "Let us leave our differences behind since the campaign is over. My government will work in the interest of everyone, including those who did not vote for us," he said.

Italy's new leader then briskly went on to outline the agenda for his first 100 days in office: abolish succession tax, change the directors of the state-run Radiotelevisione Italiana's (RAI) two channels, appoint a commission to investigate financial scandals involving Telecom Italia and former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, create an institute for crime prevention and, last but not least, resolve the conflict of interest between his vast business empire and his new role as Prime Minister.

Once again, Berlusconi read out the "contract" he had brokered with Italy. "If I do not achieve four of our five priorities I shall pack up my bags and go home," he said. He has pledged to reduce taxes, increase pensions, cut back on the bureaucracy, overhaul education, reduce crime, enhance social security, create 1.5 million jobs, reduce the national debt and build infrastructure.

In a symbolic gesture, Berlusconi avoided using one of his own television channels to address the nation but chose the RAI 1 instead. In a magisterial performance, Berlusconi displayed his mastery over the medium.

"In his case the medium is the message," Carlo Freccero, the Director of RAI 2, said bitterly. He had just heard the new leader's announcement that heads would roll in the state-run TV. "Isn't it ironic that our next Prime Minister is the very same man who transformed Italian culture? He has emerged as a leader today precisely because his television has brought about an anthropomorphic mutation in Italian society and changed the way Italy thinks. His reductionistic formulae are conceived as advertising slogans. His smooth, globalised, bland aesthetic brings everything down to the lowest common denominator, a veritable dumbing down, so that each fragment of daily life becomes part of a "show". Look at the voyeuristic Big Brother and you'll see what I mean. In Berlusconi's Italy, there is no place for minorities. The only yardstick is success. It's the cult of the majority. Good taste is now the taste of the masses. Instead of joining the Communist party or going to church, the majority of consumers find their place in commercial television - the only social space recognised as valid. Too bad for culture, for memory, for individual thought," Freccero said.

Umberto Eco, writer, Indro Montanelli, the respected 92-year-old editor and columnist, and Jean Michel Folon, the French artist and graphic designer, joined an impressive number of intellectuals who mounted a campaign against Berlusconi and the values he represents. A few days before the vote Eco told fellow Italians that it was a "moral responsibility" to vote for Francesco Rutelli, the candidate of the left-wing Olive Tree Alliance and Berlusconi's main rival. Jean Michel Folon said that a vote for Berlusconi would mean one in favour of stupidity and against intelligence. Indro Montanelli, who once edited Berlusconi's newspaper Il Giornale, described the leader of Forza Italia as "a dangerous man".

The charges against Berlusconi are quite serious. He has come under investigation for money laundering, mafia connections, tax evasion and bribing policemen, judges, politicians and tax officers. He has even been suspected of complicity in a murder. Berlusconi stoutly denies these charges, saying they have been cooked up by left-wing judges who have been persecuting him ever since he became Prime Minister in 1994. Several of his defenders, who are quite convinced he is guilty of at least bribery and tax evasion, find him admirable and are openly appreciative of his ability to hoodwink the state and its institutions and keep one step ahead of the judges. He has a personal fortune estimated upwards of $12 billion.

Most European newspapers campaigned against the media tycoon. The Economist said he was "not fit to lead the government of any country, least of all one of the world's richest democracies". France's Le Monde, Germany's Der Spiegel, Spain's Il Mundo all lambasted Italy's wealthiest citizen, who they suggested was corrupting the soul of Italy through his tinsel and paste television shows, and his blatant promotion of the "bold and beautiful" lifestyle as the only goal worth attaining.

But instead of convincing Italian voters to shun Berlusconi, the rhetoric put their backs up. Says Carlo Rossella, editor-in-chief of the Berlusconi-owned newsweekly Panorama and a foreign policy adviser to the Prime Minister-elect: "What the international press revealed about Berlusconi has long been known to Italians. It is nothing new. What is important is that of the nine legal cases against him only two are still pending. In all the others, he has been absolved. And in the last two, they will find nothing. European leaders know that imposing a ban on Jorg Haider was a huge mistake and they will not attempt to do that again. The international press campaign is a conspiracy to damage Berlusconi's business interests. But those attempts will not succeed."

Berlusconi has carefully reiterated his pro-European credentials. "We are proud to belong to the European Union," he said in his victory speech on May 15. His politics is close to that of Margaret Thatcher, for whom he has boundless admiration. With the exception of Spain's conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, most European leaders are suspicious of Berlusconi who is expected to take a tough line on immigration. The French Minister for European Affairs, Pierre Muscovici, described Berlusconi's victory as "a democratic vote in a democratic country". However, the socialist Muscovici could not help adding that for "people of a certain sensibility, his election is not good news".

Socialist Euro-Members of Parliament have been stunned by Berlusconi's victory. Enrique Baron Crespo, president of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, said he intended to "verify that the Berlusconi government's programme is compatible with E.U. policy". The socialist MPs are also worried that Nicole Fontaine, president of the E.U. Parliament, has been stonewalling Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon's request to lift Berlusconi's parliamentary immunity. The judge suspects Berlusconi of fraud and tax evasion and would like to press charges.

Just how Berlusconi intends to square his electoral programme with the criteria on national deficit and fiscal control laid down by the Maastricht Treaty on European construction is difficult to envisage. His decision to lower taxes, spend on infrastructure and increase pensions is likely to imperil seriously Italy's position within the Euro zone. "His advisers will be obliged to ignore a few of their election promises. Most probably they will order an audit and declare that the state of the country's finances is much worse than they had presumed, blame it all on the outgoing left-wing government or they will say the calendar does not allow them to act immediately," says journalist Valeria Gandus.

Now that they have conceded victory to a rival they did their best to demonise, the Italian Left is assessing the situation and attempting to analyse its defeat. "One of the reasons for the Left's poor performance was the fact that the communists refused to join the alliance. The Left's share of senatorial seats could have been increased if the Communists had joined the alliance - they might have obtained a majority in the Senate. In sharp contrast to the Left, Berlusconi had a game plan - in 1994, when the old party system collapsed, he decided to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the former Christian Democrat and Socialist parties. This meant that the entire political landscape from the centre-right to the centre-left was a void. Berlusconi's Forza Italia filled that void. He is now reaping the benefits of his perspicacity," said commentator and former diplomat Sergio Romano.

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