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Framing Berlusconi into context

Rivers of ink have been poured, hours of TV broadcasted and infinite socials posted to comment on the disappearance of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s three-time prime minister. Italians have, overall, demonstrated maturity and restrain as bitter opponents paid respectful tribute to the deceased leader. Internationally, however, comments have, primarily if not solely, focused on the extravagant traits of Berlusconi’s complex personality corroborating a stereotypical one-sided narrative.

There is hence an opportunity to provide international observers with the societal context that pushed Berlusconi to step into politics and his political contribution to Italy. This might also help to understand Italy’s political future in the post-Berlusconi era.

It must be acknowledged, once more, that the circumstance that there is no media in English edited from Italy to provide international observers with an authentic Italian perspective on issues that matter, remains Italy’s Achille’s hill. Its image and narrative continue to be shaped and led by foreign media outlets. In Berlusconi’s case this is particularly noticeable.

Berlusconi decided to step into politics in 1994. Italy was troubled by two intertwined historical disruptions: the fall of the Berlin wall --and with that the collapse of the Soviet Union-- and a domestic corruption scandal that uncovered a systematic process of kick-backs between political parties and the private sector. The massive presence of the state into the economy made this corruption pervasive. A pool of Milanese judges concentrated on the five political parties that ruled Italy since 1948. The leadership of these political parties and businessmen were indicted, many imprisoned, some committed suicide. Judges used preventive detention to force suspects to confess and name other politicians or businessmen involved. By 1994 these parties ceased to exist. Only the communists remained untouched and, with an upcoming general election, its leadership was certain of a landslide victory after forty years in the waiting room. The Italian magistrature, an independent self-governed body, manage to tilt the power in its favor hampering both the system of checks and balances and the primacy of elected officials. This imbalance endures to this day.

Italy was home to the strongest communist party in the west, about a third of the electorate. Up to 1988, the Soviet Union generously financed its gigantic apparatus. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Italy’s communist leadership tried to distance itself from the past by eliminating the sickle and the hammer from its logo and dropping altogether the word “communist” from its brand name. Its new post-Soviet vision for the economy and the society, its loyalty to the Atlantic alliance, its view on capitalism and the economy were blurred and unclear to the majority of Italians.

Berlusconi masterly leveraged its media networks to create a new political party whose name, an absolute innovation, recalled soccer stadium cheering: Forza Italia (Come On Italy!).

He communicated plainly and clearly so that all citizens could understand the issues at hand, provided Italians with a dream, made his business successes – real estate, media, soccer with AC Milan—a role model. To win the general election he coalesced the separatist North League with the remaining of the former Christian Democrats and Socialists and cleared the far-right party from its fascist past.

Berlusconi simplified the political offering, a center right vs a center left, and proposed, though not contemplated by the constitution, that voters could indicate directly the Prime Minister. “Freedom” opposed to “Communism” was his mantra and proposed a liberal political value proposition with its corollary of low taxes, less bureaucracy, more entrepreneurship and new jobs. Italians responded positively. Berlusconi won the election, obtaining 21% of the votes for Forza Italia, a higher percentage than any other party and became Prime Minister in 1994. Berlusconi remains the Prime Minister that has served the longest, a total of 9 years.

His liberal revolution was hampered by his own coalition members, corporativists that view the State as a key economic player, and by an unprecedented persistence of the judiciary: 36 trials have been held against him, four of which are still ongoing. The final score is 11 acquittal sentences, 10 proceedings closed, 8 prescribed and for 2 amnesty was granted.

Left parties leaned in favor of the judiciary in the hope of regaining power.

Indeed, Berlusconi’s governments tried to contrast this judiciary assault by issuing laws that would curb judges overpower. Being anti-Berlusconi became the reason d’être of the left parties and a part of the electorate. This political constipation that left policy making ill attended, eventually led to the rise of populism and of the Five Star movement whose ideologue is a left-leaning stand-up comedian.

In politics there is legacy but no inheritance. Forza Italia’s survival is currently challenged and waiting for one of its leaders, or an outsider, to “grab” the helm and convince the remaining electorate, about 6% of the votes, that it has a political future.

While Italy’s political system at large has gone through three decades of pure insanity whose only goal was to get rid of one man, it overlooked economic development, institutional, social and economic reforms, lost generations of talents currently generating wealth for other economies. These problems are current affairs and the US$ 250 billion Next Generation EU fund should help Italy to, at last, overcome this hysteria and focus on business.


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