Saturday, February 12, 2011
Clash of institutions
Italy’s image abroad reels under each revelation of Silvio Berlusconi’s private life – the sex, the parties, the favours and largesse and political jobs given to pretty young women. Berlusconi has become an instantly recognisable peg for comics across the world to hang their jokes on. At home the prime minister’s lifestyle leaves him open to blackmail not only by the girls who go to his parties and their friends but also his business and political partners interested in government affairs. But worse than either is Berlusconi’s attempt to subvert the constitution, to annihilate the power of the judiciary and concentrate power in the executive and this is what he is trying to do now. This is a clash of institutions which can be a serious threat to Italian democracy.
Today was supposed to see the Prime Minister demonstrating against the Milan public prosecutors. At least that was what we thought a fortnight ago when two of Berlusconi’s closest supporters issued a communiqué proclaiming a Saturday 12 February as a day of action of Berlusconi against the prosecutors. Then the editor of one of the Berlusconi papers, Giuliano Ferrara (pictured above with Berlusconi) called the communiqué “politically criminal” and the machine went into reverse.
Instead one of the two original proposers, demonstrated outside the Milan Palace of Justice yesterday and we did indeed have a demonstration today but led by Ferrara himself in defence of Berlusconi and against what Ferrara calls “puritan moralism”.
For a prime minister to lead a crowd of supporters against the judiciary would have been a dress rehearsal for a coup d’état. But to have one of his most faithful courtiers doing it instead is not very different, especially since Ferrara published an interview with Berlusconi yesterday in which Berlusconi declared “there is an anti-democratic plan to get rid of me without a vote. It is managed by spying prosecutors followed by a crowd of Jacobins. But I will not yield and there is a gentleman in the Quirinale”, he again accused prosecutors of making Italy into a Stasi-run DDR because of their use of phone intercepts. Yesterday at a press conference, he said that the prosecutors were subversive and acting illegally and that he will sue the state for damages.
Far from being either subversive or illegal, the Milan prosecutor’s office is investigating the episode in May last year when Berlusconi phoned a Milan police station in order to have a 17 year old girl accused of theft released immediately. It transpired that she had stayed at Berlusconi’s villa in Arcore and had had frequent contacts with him. Investigators made extensive use of telephone taps of the girls that go to Arcore and the organiser of the parties. This is why Berlusconi calls the prosecutors “spies” and compares them with East Germany. The prosecution believes they have enough evidence to indict Berlusconi for abuse of power (the call to the policeman to get the girl released) and paying for sex with a minor. They reckon that there is clear and sufficient evidence to use a fast-track prosecution procedure and sent their request to the investigating magistrate this week. She should decide next week.
If she accepts the request, Berlusconi will argue that the Milan court does not have jurisdiction and will certainly do his best to delay the case coming to court.
But in the meantime, the prime minister and his supporters are doing their best to delegitimise the judiciary. They are trying to spin his tussles with the law into a supposedly anti-democratic move by revolutionary (hence the use of “Jacobin” to describe them) prosecutors who are “using the courts to subvert the people’s democratic will”. He and his supporters do not countenance the possibility that there might be some substance to the accusations against him.
In actual fact, it is Berlusconi who once again is trying to undermine the democratic process.
Whatever definition one takes of democracy today, it is a system in which no single element predominates in society or the political system. The separation of power is scissors, stone and paper written into the constitution with the rule of law as important as the rule of the majority. That majority rule must in any case be tempered and limited by among many other things, respect for human rights and minorities. Another fundamental feature of democracy is that no one is above the law whether for sexual misdemeanours like Bill Clinton a decade ago or for crimes like president Moshe Katsav of Israel who stepped down after being accused of rape and who was convicted in December.
Not for the first time, Berlusconi presents his view of the prime minister as being uncontrollable either by the law or indeed parliament. If either try to do so, he becomes angry and impatient. Even more so when newspapers or television programmes criticise him.
He is not even prepared to be conditioned by a political party so that when Gianfranco Fini dared counter him, Fini was expelled.
The corollary of unbridled power is populism and Berlusconi is very good at it. Over the last few weeks, he has increasingly used direct appeals both to his people and the whole of Italy. There are shades of Big Brother in his strategy – Orwell’s rather than the softer, more recent one which is another symbol of Berlusconi’s times. The Leader is always liable to turn up on one’s screen either with a mellifluous message or an attack on his enemies.
A message broadcast on the party website is not so surprising but for a prime minister to call a live television chat show and insult the presenter “your presentation is disgusting, foul and repugnant and completely untrue… I know what I’m saying, you don’t… this is a television brothel” is rather more unusual in western democracies. A few days after this episode, the director general of the public broadcaster, the RAI called another presenter to “disassociate” himself from the broadcast, another example of a lack of division of roles.
When he does appear on television, it is only with well-housetrained interviewers and he is now planning a careful media counterattack as damage control for the Ruby case. Once again, a dominant position in the media is a serious limit on democracy and both Freedom House, The Economist and Reporters without borders all have Italy’s ratings declining since 2008. Freedom House puts Italy at 72nd out of 196 for press freedom; “partly free” for 2010; Reporters without Borders puts Italy at 49 out of 175.
So far from democracy being under attack from latterday Robespierres, it is once again, Silvio Berlusconi’s refusal to accept limits which threaten Italian institutions. For the moment, though, they are holding firm and by now there is also some popular movement as well. Tomorrow sees demonstrations across the country in favour of women’s dignity. I will describe that Italy in the next blog.