Salami tactics – Berlusconi’s legacy
Once again the opposition smells blood, Berlusconi’s blood, and hopes grow that the nightmare might be ending. On Friday he came back to Rome to chair a party summit to deal with the Fini secession – he looked terrible; puffy and bloated, visibily overweight and spouting fire and brimstone more in anger than coherence. He no longer has an absolute majority in the Chamber and risks losing it in the Senate too; his party, the PdL is rating 28% in the polls compared to the 38% they won in 2008. But not for the first time, it would be unwise to write off Silvio Berlusconi quite yet (if only because of the lack of serious, organised opposition – but that will be another blog).
But it is the moment to once again try and measure what Berlusconi has done to Italy and how much will remain, whether he leaves the political scene before Christmas or instead wins another general election, does another stint as prime minister and then retires in his eighties after seven years as President.
His declared political aims have always been clear; for the last 16 years, Berlusconi has complained about the prime minister’s lack of power and his persecution by “politically motivated” magistrates. For a decade and a half, he has tried to build his own executive powers based on the “sovereignty of the people” expressed through their elected leader. As such he is as he famously said “anointed by the people”, a latterday and supposedly democratic absolute monarch. But it hasn’t happened; there has been no cathartic, revolutionary change either in the written constitution or even, notwithstanding a landslide of remarks by Berlusconi’s spokespeople over the last few days, in the unwritten constitution.
His other declared political aims include introducing business “freedom” and reducing the role and weight of the state. But there has been no Thatcherite revolution either but this is more because he is actually not that interested in a real free market.
His undeclared aims were and still are to protect himself from criminal prosecution and to benefit his own businesses. In these, he has largely succeeded at least for himself. With minor exceptions, he has never been convicted of any crime; either by decriminalising the action (false accounting) or by using delaying tactics. His many charges have been dropped either because the action is no longer a crime or because the statute of limitations has come in. Despite laws to help some of them, his friends and associates have not been so lucky. The co-founder of the PdL, Dell’Utri has just been sentenced to 7 years for mafia-related crimes by the Appeal Court. His longtime lawyer Cesare Previti was convicted to seven and a half years for bribing a lawyer; his English lawyer, Mills also has an Appeal Court sentence for perjury. His brother Paolo has been in goal and his company’s chief accountant Sciascia was also convicted. Berlusconi has needed all his wiles to avoid his own conviction.
On the material benefit, his first government in 1994 passed a law within a month of taking office which gave his companies a €129m tax write off. This year Mondadori benefited from another bill specifically aimed at the giant publisher.
But whoever succeeds Berlusconi is unlikely to have the same problems with the criminal law or possess the same wealth. The lasting effects of his personalisation of politics has already taken effect in the wider privatisation of both the criminal law and material benefit as Marco Travaglio has catalogued in his recent book Ad personam. This lists measures which have given material or legal advantage to friends and followers on the left and right, a change which is expensive to the exchequer and debases the law.
Even more insidious and dangerous are the effects on the fabric of Italian democracy. Six years ago, Paul Ginsborg wrote that some reforms “designed to change the very character of Italy’s democracy and its fragile balance of powers are forging ahead. The autonomy of the magistrates is in the process of being destroyed. The devolution envisaged by Bossi will create a series of regional baronies. The composition of the Constitutional Court is to be changed. The powers of the premier are to be greatly increased, so as to establish his ascendancy not just over parliament but, if need be, over his own majority as well” (Silvio Berlusconi. Television, Power and Patrimony 2004: 182).
It is testimony to the strength of Italian democracy that magistrates continue to investigate Berlusconi and other politicians, that Italy has not been divided up into a neo-mediæval collection of fiefs and that a year ago the Constitutional Court was again able to declare immunity from criminal charges for the prime minister to be unconstitutional.
In 2002, the Milan prosecuter and leader of the “Clean Hands” investigation, Francesco Saverio Borrelli, retired and in his final speech exhorted his colleagues to “resist, resist, resist”. Since then, they have fought hard and long and certainly prevented the final end of the rule of law. But they and the other powers which make up Italian democracy have been forced to retreat.
Unable to overcome democratic pluralism with a frontal attack, Berlusconi has taken his cue from one of Italy’s most famous products and uses salame tactics. He has sliced away at Italian polyarchy, the word coined by the great scholar of democracy, Robert Dahl.
Before Ginsborg’s remarks, Italian pluralism had been reduced by Berlusconi’s concentration of political and media power. Since then it has been further reduced by an electoral law in which parliamentarians are wholly beholden to their parties and not to their electorate. The supposedly independent authorities meant to monitor broadcasting, privacy and so on, have been made even more toothless by pressure from the majority in Parliament and by Berlusconi himself. Most dangerous is the reduction in the independent power of the magistrature’s governing body, the High Council of the Magistrature (and this with the connivence of the opposition). Both the print media and television have been very largely muzzled apart from Berlusconi’s own family media which on the contrary have been unleashed in vicious campaigns against all opposition from the Bishops’ Conference daily editor, Dino Boffo, to the Chamber Speaker, Gianfranco Fini.
Which brings us back to politics today. Over the next month or so, there will be various battles royal over which slice of Italian pluralism will be cut away. Will Giorgio Napolitano give up the presidential prerogative to dissolve Parliament in the face of Berlusconi’s barrage calling for elections? Will Fini and his supporters maintain some independence in Parliament or will they be forced to eat humble pie? Will Berlusconi be able to start the reforms that Ginsborg listed in 2004, above passing a constitutional amendement giving himself immunity?
Power in Italy has already shifted massively to the executive and has left the legislature, the judiciary, civil society and the media much weaker than in 1994. We are in a crucial phase in which Berlusconi could succeed slice by slice in his design of a “populist democracy” or in which those inspired by Borrelli’s resistance might instead slow the process down.
This is a summary of a paper which I will give at the Conference Group on Italian Politics (Congrips) session at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference this year in Washington DC 2-5 September.