A fortnight away and once again, everything changes in Italy; and yet, and yet, when I asked a friend what had happened while I was away, he replied, depressed, “Nothing!” Actually, lots of things are happening but it is very difficult to make sense of events beyond the immediate scandals. A couple of days ago, a deputy confessed to me that he really had no idea of what was going on and how it would end. He was an opposition backbencher but I suspect that even government ministers do not have any better ideas – except they don’t admit it.
A quick summary: ten days ago the Constitutional Court finally gave its verdict on the so-called legitimate impediment law. This was a law passed a year ago which allowed the prime minister and cabinet to claim that government business prevents them from answering summonses to appear in court as defendants in criminal cases. In practice it was meant to give Berlusconi immunity because he did not have to go to court on three major corruption charges. The law is only valid for 18 months and was supposed to be an interim measure before a constitutional amendment is passed giving the prime minister a more solid shield. After twice declaring Berlusconi’s immunity laws unconstitutional, this time the Court allowed the concept of “legitimate impediment” but declared that it would be the courts themselves to decide when the impediment was legitimate and not the prime minister himself.
This was not what Berlusconi wanted and the Milanese courts trying him immediately set about summoning him to hearings. Much worse for him was the news that prosecutors in Milan were investigating him for his involvement with the Karima El Mahrough aka Ruby a then underage prostitute,. The whole business was immediately dubbed “Rubygate”. Telephone taps suggest that not only was she a frequent guest at Berlusconi’s principal residence but that there were lots of other girls involved. There were also some details of what the supposedly exotic and erotic (and not a little racist, too) “bunga-bunga” really is.
Since then, the president of the employers’ federation, Emma Marcegaglia of the Confindustria, criticised the government by explicitly saying they had done nothing to improve the Italian economy for six months; essentially they had not been governing, she said. The president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Angelo Bagnasco made veiled criticisms of Berlusconi when he spoke of the climate of “moral discomfort” in the country. But he also criticised the judiciary for being overzealous. It was a typical cardinal’s speech with no explicit judgement but the implication was clear enough.
And then Berlusconi called an evening talk show which was investigating Rubygate, insulted the presenter and his guests and then hung up. He refuses to defend himself in court but is happy to do so on television. But then the call was a dialogue defined as “I talk, you listen, and if I don’t like what you’re saying, I hang up”. In one sense, this was very refreshing as Berlusconi is the most unspun of politicians; this was a raw, unmediated response, the sort of outburst that drives his minders crazy and endears him to his core supporters
All this makes good copy but is there anything new? We have known publically about the prime minister’s penchant for young girls since his wife said “he frequents minors” in April 2009. And details of what that meant have been piling up since then. The Constitutional Court has already overturned two laws which gave the prime minister immunity from prosecution. Both the Catholic Church and the employers have been criticising him more or less openly for more than a year and Berlusconi has been making surprise calls to talk show hosts for years defending himself and insulting them.
In this sense, my friend was right when he said that nothing had happened while I was away. It was all more of the same. Once again, there is the sad picture of an old man watching television alone and flying off the handle when there is something he disagrees with on the tube. When he’s not alone in front of the box, the same old man needs a bevy of bimbos to tell him how young and potent he is. And his natural political allies try to nudge him back into reality.
But there has been a change nonetheless. The sheer quantity of evidence is mindboggling and there are even allegations that some of the girls were not willing at least for some of the personal services requested. If the charges are sex with underage girls and maybe rape as well, then this would be a different level. With Naomi Letizia (the first girl that we know about who called him “Papi”), it was possible to finesse the exact nature of their relationship. With Ruby, it is next to impossible.
The conclusion is that Berlusconi is no longer a man in control either of his government or of his own private life. He is a fighter, though, and the television outburst shows his mettle. He still has huge resources and is prepared to use them all to maintain his position and his power. He has threatened prosecutors and the courts that he will take to the streets with all his supporters if they continue prosecuting him, I’m sorry, persecuting him; in practice a coup d’état against the judiciary. Approval ratings for him and his party are still around the 30% mark and even the worst still puts his party first.
While the rest of the world is agog at the Italian prime minister’s antics and cannot understand why Berlusconi has not resigned, Italians worry about rising prices and reduced purchasing power and lowered wages (or none at all). One of Berlusconi’s ministers faces a vote of no confidence today and the his closest allies, the Northern League are fighting to get their fiscal federalism implementation measures through parliament (my next blog). So not everything has changed but as Gallileo said “but it does move!”. He was talking about the earth but there are times that the movement in Italian politics is as imperceptible.