Sunday, February 20, 2011

The usual questions…

This last week has been hectic for Italy-watchers with first a huge demo last Sunday which might, just might, mean the beginning of a change of direction in Italian society. Then on Tuesday there was Berlusconi’s indictment on charges of under age prostitution and abuse of power. The first hearing will be on 6 April but before then we will have hearings for his three other prosecutions (two for setting up slush funds: Mediaset on 28 February and Mediatrade on 5 March, both for fiscal fraud and embezzlement aimed at setting up the funds and one for corruption: the Mills case where the English lawyer, David Mills was paid to perjure himself. That is on 11 March).
Over the last few days, there has been the Berlusconi counterattack. His own media and his allies have accused the opposition of being nosey moralistic puritans unable to defeat him electorally (nothing new in this, but they have been particularly loud these days). His lawyers have threatened all the legal responses possible in order to delay the Ruby hearing and politically he has managed to pick off (Fini has explicitly accused him of buying them) another half a dozen opposition parliamentarians to consolidate his majority in both houses, and he has launched a series of drastic initiatives to curb both the ordinary judiciary and the Constitutional Court.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Mediterranean, his friend Muammar Gheddaffi seems to be in trouble but Berlusconi does not want to “bother” Gheddaffi except to worry about a possible flood of refugees which in any case has already started from Tunisia.
There has also been some pretty serious friendly fire in the reports by US diplomats published by WikiLeaks which confirm that Berlusconi is considered weak and malleable and a liability for Italy.
I will try and deal with all these issues over the next few days but for now, will answer some of the questions which have been put to me by foreigners who find it difficult to understand the country. They are mostly the same ones that we have all been asking ourselves for years but there are still no set answers.
Berlusconi's approval ratings have plummeted to 30 per cent, a survey showed on Monday. Does that mean the prime minister’s supporters have been split because of the scandal?

B’s approval ratings have been sliding for the last year mostly because of Italy’s economic woes and the perception that the government is not actually acting. Unemployment and the number of businesses failing have been rising; the recovery is very sluggish compared to the rest of Europe. These are the real reasons for Berlusconi’s declining popularity. His ratings have not “plummeted”, on the contrary, some surveys suggest that he might even have gained some support recently. A 14 Feb survey gave him a 32% approval rating down 2% from 7 Feb while another survey gave him as much as 50%; both were friendly surveys. Obviously there are some conservatives who like Berlusconi’s politics but not his lifestyle but all of those who speak, are vocal in not letting one weigh on the other. Those who do not speak are apparently a small proportion.
Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that even when Italians actually voted, it was a minority who actively supported Silvio Berlusconi’s party. The rest either voted for his allies (the Northern League), or they voted for the opposition or else they didn’t vote at all. The result of course is that he won the elections, but that is not the same as saying that most Italians support him. Today with only surveys to go on, that support has further waned but given the electoral system, he could well win again.
As for the accusations, criminal and moral, there has only been muted criticism from Cardinal Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. After a ceremony to commemorate the signing of the Lateran Pacts between Italy and the Vatican, Berlusconi said that relations with the Church were excellent as always, the cardinal responded saying that the meeting was a “symbolic and institutional” hardly a ringing endorsement.
Prime Minister Berlusconi has repeatedly shrugged off a string of accusations and scandals to win three elections since 1994. Could this time be his downfall?

Berlusconi has made it very clear that he has no intention of stepping down. On the contrary, while most of the international media has wondered when he is going to go, he himself has been attacking and proposing new measures. He has said he will not go until he is convicted and there is every reasons to think he will keep his word. Since there are three levels of judgement in Italian law, that could take some time. It is possible, and looking ever more likely that the Northern League will indeed insist on early elections but if that happens, there is no guarantee that Berlusconi would lose them. He still has enormous resources, financial and political combined with control of much of the media. He is still an expert campaigner and the opposition is still very divided. We should not hold our breath.
Why has the prime minister has remained popular for such a long time on Italian political stage? Could anybody replace him?

His popularity depends on the three reasons I’ve just listed plus of course the essential quality of any successful political leader, that he has to inspire his people, either by his own example “you too can be like me” or by his positive promises “I will make your lives better so that you can live your dreams” or by promises of protection from danger “I will save you from the left”. Berlusconi has done all three for most of the last 17 years in Italy. There is no one able to replace him using all three elements but there are some centre-right politicians lining up to try and give a less flamboyant voice to conservative Italy.

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