Politics, ‘civil society’ and Berlusconi’s never-ending electoral campaign

Silvio Berlusconi will be probably remembered as one of the most controversial political figures of this age.

Berlusconi's ineffective leadership had aggravated the economic conditions of a key eurozone country [Reuters]

As an old saying goes, Italy has always been considered like a land of “saints, poets and sailors”. Although rather stereotypical in its tone, this may reflect – and at least abroad – some of the Italians’ national character. 

Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi certainly proved to be the only genuine “poet” of a very peculiar version of western politics: Demagogic, often unpredictable, irreverent, appealing as well as detested. He will be probably remembered as one of the most controversial political figures of this age and the promoter of a quite atypical idea of democracy. 

After roughly 20 years of monopoly over Italian politics and all the international media attention, he was forced to resign in November 2011 under pressure of financial markets, the European Union and Obama’s administration. His ineffective leadership had, in fact, aggravated the economic conditions of a key eurozone country. 

Growing waves of dissatisfaction

Yet, aside from the most serious economic issues or some growing waves of dissatisfaction with the austerity policies, often media attention and, especially, the political scene is still dominated by the latest news coming from the media tycoon and his apparently never ending saga. One should also wonder how many common citizens really take care today about all this. 

 Berlusconi hits the campaign trail

However, in the last weeks it was evident that he was preparing a sort of political comeback. The idea was to “rebuild” his own political creature, the People of Freedom party, or even create a new movement (with the same “spirit” of his old Go Italy), challenge the technocratic government led by Mario Monti, attracting the “civil society” (and this is the new, but often pathetic, mantra in Italy) and regain the lost credibility among Italians. 

Incredibly, a number of coups de theatre occurred recently too: Berlusconi firstly announced that he would not run for premier in the next elections. 

A couple of days later, a court in Milan sentenced him to serve four years in jail and banned from public office for tax fraud related to the purchase of US movies for his own television channels. Immediately after the sentence, he questioned the bias of some judges. And when this “prejudice” happens, a country stops to be a democracy. “We need to do something,” he added. It was almost certain that he was already preparing something, although this time frenetically too, and with less strength than in the past. 

It is a turning point for Italy’s politics. The main parties are either losing or not gaining (a strong) consensus. In the meantime, the virtually non-funded and “citizens-led” Five Stars movement created by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo is becoming a major political force. “Civil society” and a contraposition between a good society and a bad politics are often the new mantras. 

The virtues of the common people are now ridiculously celebrated by many politicians. They seem to forget that people are rejecting the existing political elite. The disillusionment with politics, and many of the “old” socio-economic elites and their nepotism, is, in fact, very high. 

However, this same Berlusconi is also dreaming to attract members of this civil society (and the business community too with the usual promise of tax cuts), as well as the “angry anti-politics” popular vote. Will this be enough to resume a political trajectory made up by significant electoral successes as well as excessive controversies? 

More realistically, without Berlusconi, his party might have the chance to become a “normalised” right-wing entity – resembling other conservative movements across the globe. Yet, despite all enthusiasm generated by Berlusconi’s early decision, it was more than clear that he is not quitting politics. 

This was evident in the press conference that was made to challenge his conviction. This is not only a shift of strategy, and it will not be the last one. Firstly, polls confirm that his party is losing a significant share of votes and cannot win alone. Berlusconi then romantically plays the card of the committed statesman (and this has been often a feature of his rhetoric). 

Like in the imaginary trip described by his world famous compatriot Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy, Berlusconi the “sailor” (and saviour) would still be claiming to be the only one able to ship Italy from the purgatory (economic crisis and austerity) to a promised paradise (financial prosperity and authentic political independence) – and against Angela Merkel, Italy’s avid fiscal police, and, at least, partially the same Monti’s government. 

As said, this is a confusing strategy, forgetting how he and the political class contributed to the ongoing drift. 

Berlusconi’s new campaign

As a sort of novel “saint”, he is adopting the usual propagandistic narrative: It is the “love” to Italy that originally moved him to take this very unclear step back (and now a following step forward?). A “love” that, in his words, also means a renewed political activity to change Italy’s institutional structure: More power to prime ministers, and, above all, reforming the high constitutional court and the judicial system. 

This is because Italy became, in his words, a “judges’ dictatorship”. Another scenario clearly entails Berlusconi in the role of new candidate, prime minister or kingmaker, sponsoring the next leader of his (next?) party. This latter is a less ideal solution for him but it could be a temporary one, while he is possibly preparing another comeback, or the candidature of his daughter Marina. 

 Berlusconi sentenced in tax evasion case

Marina is the chairwoman of part of his media empire. She is in many ways a perfect solution to protect Berlusconi’s interests. A female candidate, for the first real time in Italian history, against the usual “males” with such a powerful background cannot be ignored. 

In reality, malicious observers argued that it is Berlusconi’s family and enterprises (including the highly indebted Mediaset) that need “protection” from economic crisis as well as trials. Can these plans save his party from divisions and, above all, the loss of popularity following the new episodes of corruption, the misuse of state money and some scandals involving major politicians? 

The truth is therefore subtler than this romantic idea of saving the nation. The eventual risk is now that his critique to Monti’s policies, and the electoral propaganda, would soon realistically lead to the end of the Brussels-backed government. And how will the financial markets react to all this? 

Berlusconi’s new campaign to influence a future governmental coalition has just started. But, this time, the defeat may realistically be around the corner. Other movements and political associations are then trying to fill the (electoral and political) vacuum in the centre-right. Can they represent the new and more proficient “sailors”? 

Right-leaning journalist Oscar Giannino and economics professors Luigi Zingales and Michele Boldrin are, for example, among the promoters of the political association Fermare il Declino (Stop the decline). The Ferrari CEO, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, has recently opted to convert the foundation Italia Futura (Future Italy) into a political organisation. 

As “politics” aren’t too fashionable in contemporary Italy, some argue that these attempts are beyond political ideologies, or that the left vs right dichotomies are not useful in such context (perhaps, promoters of such slogans should remember that the idea of being “neither left nor right” is very old and very commonly promoted by some radical right currents, including during the interwar years). 

There is instead and clearly a conservative-liberal agenda beyond some of this, and assuming that some electoral strength will be generated, it would be welcome if a post- or non-Berlusconi right-wing galaxy is then created out of this. 

Yet, it is a bit paradoxical that some of these forces claim to inject new vigour in politics and be really “novel”. But then they would love to see again the “young” Mario Monti, born 1943, as prime minister. Where is the space for the young generations? Would it be too much to have someone like 40-year-old-like Italian David Cameron? 

In Italy, the hostility towards elites and politics is currently very strong and all “cosmetic” solutions are hardly considered a panacea. Indeed, many common people seem to consider Grillo’s Five Stars like the only genuine novelty in the political system. This group may, in fact, realistically turn out to be the second strongest party in the next parliament. But what will this mean in terms of governance and policies? 

If Italian politics has been traditionally puzzling, the next elections are already the most intriguing in recent times. Once again, as contemporary history has taught us, Italy might represent a precursor of some western political and social tendencies.

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book, Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy, will be published by Cambridge University Press. He is the co-editor with Giuseppe A Veltri of Italy Today: The sick man of Europe (Routledge, 2010) and Un Paese normale? Saggi sull’Italia contemporanea (Dalai editore, 2011). 

Follow him on Twitter: @Andrea_Mammone

Giuseppe A Veltri was a scientific fellow at the European Commission JRC Institute for Prospective Technological Studies. He is a Lecturer in Media and Culture in the School of Political, Social and International Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is the co-editor with Andrea Mammone of Italy Today: The sick man of Europe (Routledge, 2010) and Un Paese normale? Saggi sull’Italia contemporanea (Dalai editore, 2011).

Follow him on Twitter: @gaveltri