Why Berlusconi was able to hang on
What is your initial impression of outcome of the legislative elections in Italy?
With 83% voter participation, the outcome was above all the expression of a vigorous democracy in which the Italians, who have not been anesthetized by what is know as the Berlusconi Mediacracy, were mobilized to decide their future. Paradoxically, it was a half-victory for Romano Prodi, who scored well but who didn’t truly convince voters. This was because with his bastion of Forza Italia, which remains Italy’s largest political party, Berlusconi is firmly achored upon the scene. The anti-Berlusconi referendum was a failure.
How to you explain the resiliency of Silvio Berlusconi, whose performance and personal style were severely criticized over the last few months.
I think his campaign was a successful one. That is, he was able to rally the Italian electorate around his personality and certain right-wing values. It was a complex operation, which allowed him to exhibit both sides of his personality. Berlusconi is a modern Janus, a politician but at the same time a man who has made a career out of bashing politics. The result is that even though his economic performance was anything but praiseworthy, he was able to consolidate his hold on the north of the country, where there is residual unemployment. He managed to convinced entrepreneurs and center-right voters that he represents the fundamental values of the modern Right: freedom of enterprise and liberalism. He also seduced another block of voters --those who are disgusted with politics and who live outside the major urban areas in small towns-- with his anti-establishment diatribe, invective and outrage and by telling them: Look at me! I’m not an establishment politician! I’m different, including the language I use.
We often heard Mr. Berlusconi conjure up a “communist menace”, even though there are practically no more communists left in Italy. This argument, which appears somewhat facetious or stretched, did it work?
It had a major impact. I think that it is mistaken to underestimate the potency of Italy’s national memory. The Italian Communist Party was once very powerful. Outside the country, it garnered a reputation for openness and progressive politics. But within Italy, it was viewed by the center-Right and by its enemies as by and large a secretive party and potentially dangerous. Don’t forget the influence of the Catholic Church and the Vatican and their instructions to the faithful on voting. They fought a real anti-Communist campaign. Following WWII, the country was on the verge of civil war.
It is often forgotten that Italy bordered on the former Yugoslavia. There were purges and massacres in northern Italy carried out by communists, which was covered up by the Left for some time.
After several years in office, the veil fell away from Berlusconi-ism. Italians witnessed endless conflicts of interest, specially-tailored laws, and other inappropriate actions. How do you explain that half the electorate still voted for him?
It doesn’t mean that half of Italy is dishonest or approves of Berlusconi’s misdeeds. The response is nuanced. First, there is a certain Italian “uncivic” mentality that accommodates Berlusconi’s political shots from the hip. Also, ever since the Mani Pulite investigations, which revealed the horrific level of corruption within the political system, there has been disillusionment and cynicism towards politics. They believe that, They are all rotten SOB’s and view Mr. Berlusconi’s “misbehavior” from a relative perspective.
But there is also a non-negligible center-right that includes intellectuals and corporate CEOs who vote for Berlusconi with their eyes wide open. They don’t approve of his methods, they’re embarrassed by his media discourse, but they feel that isn’t important.
Behind this attitude is a genuine feeling of concern for democracy. They say that lacking anyone better, Berlusconi is a forced passage on the road to building a coherent modern Right able to impose stability and transform the country.
So Berlusconi-ism is not an Italian anomaly but the prefiguration of a change in society?
Something like that. It is undeniable that Berlusconi has left a mark on society and Italian democracy. Beyond the values of a liberal entrepreneur, Berlusconi has brought with him the values of individualism, unfettered enjoyment of freedom and unbridled success. “Get rich!” That’s his message to Italians. It is a message that is not particularly comforting but which translates certain fears and trends in our changing democracies before the challenge of globalism and all the modern demands of individuals seeking refuge in egotistical values.
Why wasn’t Romano Prodi more convincing? Was he the victim of the Berlusconi-orchestrated media?
Mr. Prodi was convincing in expressing to Italians his desire to find new forms of expression for modern social solidarity and responsible citizenship. He was convincing by emphasizing the importance of research and brainpower for the future of the country. But as to media image, it’s true, Prodi was severely outclassed by Mr. Berlusconi’s marketing techniques.
The reason which prevented Prodi from achieving a bigger victory was the heterogeneity of his coalition. The only glue holding it together was getting rid of Berlusconi. He campaigned on a relatively vague platform which didn’t really address the economy, society or foreign policy because of the divergent opinion within his coalition. At the end of the campaign, when the question of a tax increase came up, the Left found itself on the defensive when Berlusconi waved a final gift in front of voters: the abolition of property tax. It should be remembered that although Berlusconi did not keep every campaign promise, he kept some, such as raising the minimum retirement age.
What is going to be the biggest challenge to the next government?
I think everyone realizes that the division of Italy, caused in large measure by the election law, must be overcome. The most difficult challenge will be to end the simulated civil war so that the economy can be restarted and a climate of unity can be restored. The first test will come along shortly: a new President must be elected in May. And that will be a test of the maturity of Italy’s political class.
Marc Lazar is the author of a book on Italian politics, L'Italie à la dérive (Italy Adrift), published by Perrin.