Sunday, January 25, 2004

Berlusconi’s first ten years in politics

Silvio Berlusconi actually “came onto the field” on 26 January 1994, but always the early bird, he celebrated the anniversary yesterday at an extravagant ceremony at the Palacongresso in EUR here in Rome. The 105 minute speech was remarkably consistent with his opening message a decade ago.

In 1994, he was going to save Italy from Communism. “Then” he declared to rapturous applause from the six thousand supporters, “it was called by its real name and went under the symbol of the hammer and sickel. Today, the Communists and the left have tried to disguise themselves. They’ve had a facelift, but it didn’t work”, proudly vaunting his own successful cosmetic surgery. No false modesty here; he had “saved Italy” and would do it again if necessary, to end what he called “a permanent civil war”.

Not surprisingly, Berlusconi launched his second salvo at the magistrates he calls “Jacobins”, the Milan prosecutors who dealt with the kickback system known as Tangentopoli and then indicted Berlusconi himself along with many of his business associates and employees.

He quoted the ex-Socialist Genoese priest, Gianni Baget Bozzo at length “Fascism was less odious than the begowned bureaucracy which used violence in the name of justice” (Italian magistrates wear gowns in court). “If there was any freedom,” he went on reading Baget Bozzo’s article, “the names of the Milan magistrates, the Di Pietros, the Borrellis, the Davigos, the Bocassinis would be remembered with horror.”

This is strong stuff and he has attacked the magistrature many times before; still, each time, it comes as a shock. To hear an Italian Prime Minister saying that members of one of the institutions of a democratic state are worse than fascism is or should be unusual, especially as it is Mr. Berlusconi himself who resembles Robespierre with all his certainties. There is also something surreal and maniacally illusory to hear him attacking a non-existent political force… and even more peculiar that he has an audience that believes it and laps it up.

For his followers, his charm, part messianic and part variety show compère, is still obviously strong. He still knows how to play the populist chords and work his audience.

He has less of a shine for his allies. He also used the speech to try throw out lines to them to try and bring them in closer ready for the cabinet reshuffle and programme adjustment due this week or next. Rocco Buttiglione criticised the anti-magistrate remarks and Umberto Bossi once again huffed and puffed over the lack of progress towards greater devolution. Fini made no comment.

In practice, yesterday’s event was the beginning of the European Parliament election campaign, five months before the elections. Mr. Berlusconi knows that his strength is as an electioneering politician. Not only does he obviously have the resources – money and media – he is actually very good at it. The operation of “coming onto the field” 10 years ago was a brilliant success. To invent a party in six months and then pull it out of a hat two months before elections, and then win, was unique. Even more so, when he put together the improbable alliance between the Northern League, National Alliance and his new party.

After the inevitable rupture with Bossi and the League seven months later, Berlusconi showed a different quality, persistence in the face of adversity. From having been a “company party”, a “nimble party”, Forza Italia became something approaching a traditional party but despite the growing organisational structures, it remained and remains dependent on the founder. Yesterday’s performance was proof if any were necessary.

It showed once again how 10 years ago Italian politics veered off any other track, not just European. Wealth, control of the media and political power combined in one person are not part of any democratic norm but Berlusconi managed to do it as well as sustaining criminal prosecutions that would have been impossible elsewhere.

But Berlusconi’s decade in politics is not just due to his own ability however great that might be; without the support of parts of the centre-left, in particular Massimo D’Alema who accepted him as his interlocutor for the Bicameral Commission’s proposed constitutional reforms instead of clearing up the conflicts of interest or even applying existing laws. In 1998, Romano Prodi was defeated in Parliament, again with the connivance of part of the left which wanted to see D’Alema as Prime Minister. Those divisions remained till the elections and almost certainly allowed Berlusconi to win in 2001.

If they continue, then tomorrow will mark just the first decade of Silvio Berlusconi political career.

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