Berlusconi: A beginner’s guide

The most colourful – and controversial – leader in Europe is facing his worst political crisis just as David Cameron lands for a visit. How does Silvio Berlusconi get away with it?

By Ian Dunt

Could these be the final days of Silvio Berlusconi? His opponents would do well to contain their optimism. The thrice-elected Italian prime minister always manages to crawl back from the wreckage. The last time centre-left leader Romano Prodi beat him, in the 2006 election, Berlusconi did not even bother to call him to congratulate him. Within two years, Prodi’s government had fallen apart and Berlusconi was back, in a rather typical Italian political process of vulnerable cooperation and rushed disintegration. But with his majority in the Chamber of Deputies wiped out, a sex scandal about his use of prostitutes now the subject of a corruption investigation and even his closest allies increasingly concerned about his antics, perhaps we are finally seeing the last act in the morality play that is Berlusconi.

Cameron’s trip today affords European audiences the opportunity to witness the radical differences between the British and Italian systems of government and, more importantly, the political cultures in both countries. The simple fact is Berlusconi is embroiled in a scandal almost every month which would end a British politician’s career forever.

The sex scandals which have beset the prime minister are varied and entertaining in equal measure. In 2009 alone, he faced accusations – from his own wife – that he took on young, attractive women as candidates during the 2009 European parliamentary elections merely on the basis of their looks. DShe also claimed that he attended the 18th birthday of beautiful Noemi Letizia, despite never making it to the celebrations of his own children. Yesterday, in a piece of timing which Cameron will not appreciate, testimony from prostitute Maria Teresa De Nicolo quoted by Italian newspaper La Repubblica said that the prime minister had slept in a bed with three prostitutes at the same time.

But for those interested in more serious constitutional matters, Berlusconi’s sexual appetite pales in comparison to the seemingly endless slate of allegations of corruption and incompetence which he faces. These include a wide array of allegations of conflicts of interests, legislative changes seemingly designed to protect him from the justice system, links to the mafia, political usage of his vast media empire, racist comments about the American president, and the prime minister’s open inclusion of fascists and post-fascists into his government.

Berlusconi’s sympathy towards Mussolini and Italian fascism is well-documented. “Mussolini never killed anyone,” the Spectator quoted him saying. “Mussolini sent people on holiday to confine them.” The man who is leading the opposition camp against Berlusconi in parliament today – Gianfranco Fini – was once a close political ally, with a history which bears comparison with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The two men’s relationship goes back as long as Berlusconi’s political career. He is president of the ‘post-fascist’ National Alliance.

Barely more controversial than his views and relationships are his extensive business interests, which are so vast and influential they raise issues of conflict of interest across the board. As Italy’s third richest man, Berlusconi’s properties include Mediaset, whose TV channels comprise half the national TV sector; Publitalia, the country’s leading advertising and PR agency; MondadoriEditore, the largest Italian publishing house; Finivest, one of the largest companies in Italy and Mediolanum, one of its biggest banking and insurance groups. His brother, Paolo, owns and runs Il Giornale, a right-wing newspaper which fiercely defends the prime minister. Il Foglio, another hugely influential righ-wing paper, is owned by his former wife. Those in the UK who object to Rupert Murdoch’s influence will turn white at the true extent of Berlusconi’s potential influence in Italy. It is quite possible for an Italian to have his entire life ruled over by the prime minister, from the television he watches, to the newspaper he reads, to his bank and even his football club.

How does he survive? In reality, Italy is one of the only countries in the world where such behaviour would be tolerated. Italians admire rogues, and Berlusconi is adept at playing the lovable card, dressing up his antics as naughtiness rather than fundamental matters of constitutional importance. A charismatic and engaging figure, he manages to keep many international leaders on side, even if German chancellor Angela Merkel can barely conceal her indignation when having to deal with him. In a manner typical to besieged leaders, Berlusconi attributes many of the controversies to a conspiracy of left-wing figures – in this case judges – intent on bringing down his government. Italians also enjoy the increased attention their country receives with Berlusconi in charge. Having been broadly ignored for years, Berlusconi brings international interest to Italy, which basks in the vicarious glee of being the centre of attention.

The inclusion of so-called ‘post-fascists’ in the government reveals something about Italy’s complicated relationship with its past. The Italians’ rejection of Mussolini meant the country was never forced to come to terms with World War Two in the same manner of Germany. A wide-spread view that the racial aspects of fascism were imposed on the country by the Nazis has begun to prevail. Italian political sensibilities are generally more extreme than those in the UK, with the far-left and right holding more powerful stakes in the mainstream process than in Westminster, due to more substantial support and the Italian version of a proportional representation system. Italy’s debate on immigration, for instance, uses a tone and rhetoric that would embarrass even right-wing tabloids in the UK.

Many are confused at how such a religious country could abide a man with such a dubious personal life, but they underestimate the extent to which the church authorities will overlook personal matters as long as policies are adhered to. Berlusconi has made it his business to satisfy these demands. At one point he even issued a decree preventing the right to die of Eluana Englaro, a woman who had been comatose for 17 years and whose family wanted her life support machine switched off. His reasoning included the argument that she was still menstruating. There is evidence that the church authorities are increasingly turning against Berlusconi, however, as the row over his use of prostitutes refuses to die down.

The Italian prime minister’s strongest weapon remains his extensive business interests. With full spectrum control of a variety of media and corporate bodies, he has created a culture which does not concentrate on the controversies against him as much as might be expected.

These factors are so prfoundly effective berlusconi is now the second-longest serving prime minister in Italian history and the longest serving leader in the G8. We remains very popular in his home country.