Monday, November 28, 2011

His Final Bow - Not Yet

In his farewell video, Silvio Berlusconi said that he was not going to give up politics… on the contrary, he would double his effort to change the country. One of his supporters here in Rome put up posters saying that he too would “double” whether efforts or stakes in not clear. On the face of it, there is no reason to presume that Berlusconi is out of politics for good.

After he resigned, he pointed out, quite correctly that he had not lost a vote of no confidence and that he still has an absolute majority in the Senate where he has already said that he can pull the plug on the Monti government whenever he wants. Rather more self-servingly, he argued in the message that his move had been “statesmanlike”; in his version, he gave up power for the good of the country. Either way, it was far less than the body blow that many of the foreign media were trumpeting. It was significant that The Economist titled its article “Addio Silvio” not “Arriverderci” (see you again), a hope rather than a statement. Those celebrating his resignation in Rome a fortnight ago were too smart to think either that the country’s problems were over or that Berlusconi had left for good. There has been no political equivalent of the stake through the heart; a resounding defeat either in Parliament or at the polls.

Since then he has again told PdL senators that the government “will last as long as we want it to” and the Monti government has “suspended democracy”.

There were even suggestions that one of the reasons that Berlusconi stepped down was the dip in Mediaset shares. Three days before he went, they tumbled 12.5% . If this was the case, then the conflict of interests had come back to bite him hard and where it hurts, in his pocket. If true, it would have meant that he resigned in order to prevent the collapse of his own companies. The opposite thesis was also aired; that by leaving office, Berlusconi’s companies would have to forego the lucrative government publicity contracts. The fact that both theses are plausible shows how deep the marriage between public and private interest was in Berlusconi’s management.

Yesterday he was again back in the political business… as if he ever went away. In Verona he started what looked very much like an election campaign, one which might last until spring 2013. He launched it with a message that was almost identical to the one that put him in power in 1994. In this clip, he is generous with his favourite words libertĂ  and comunismo going as far as to say that “we must fight for our freedom”. This would be comic in a country where communists are on the endangered species list if it wasn’t for his only concrete definition of the end of “freedom” as being a state where transactions of €200-300 must be verifiable and traceable. He said that such a regulation would put Italy in danger of becoming a “tax police state”. He was saying that “freedom” was freedom to evade taxes.

Granted he has said that he will not stand for office again; granted also that his eyes had narrowed and his face was puffy and he faltered a little on some lines but it was still an expert performance by any standards. It all depends on what sort of appeal the well-worn rhetoric will have beyond the Berlusconi diehards

Even though his departure was precipitate, it was controlled and planned. He produced a video message which was shown across the networks. The fact that a prime minister bowed out with a special message is exceptional – normally resigning leaders confine themselves to a short statement conceding defeat and wishing their successors well. Not Silvio Berlusconi. Either he is in denial and maybe even his analyst could not work that out or he is just resting. Certainly, he is not the retiring type.

Despite his claims of not seeking office again, there is a real possibility that he will make another run for power either in the near future, if the Monti government shows itself unable to calm the markets and elections are called early next year or in 2013 when the legislature reaches its natural term and if Monti is successful in bringing the Italy debt under control and giving some hope to the economy. In order to do it, Monti will have made Italians pay a high price economically and socially and the political parties will be able to blame him for the hurt rather than themselves. Given Berlusconi’s reluctance to support Monti, he will try and present himself as the return to the good times.

In either scenario, he will have his television stations – the three he owns and some residual support in two of the RAI public channels. Monti’s government has neither the time nor the style to move Berlusconi supporters out of positions of power. He still has his print media, dailies and weeklies and of course he still has in practice unlimited financial resources. He has of course lost that other commodity that used so well over the past year, government patronage – a number of his new supporters last year came over with an offer of an undersecretaryship or the like – but he can and no doubt will, promise jobs in his future government.

The other element which helped keep him in power for eight of the last ten years is almost as valid today as before; the divisions in the opposition. For the moment, at least, most of the left, all of the center-left and the center have united around Monti to address the crisis but we can be pretty sure that they will start bickering as soon as elections come round.

Worse, there is at least one dark scandal cloud hanging over the main center-left party, the Democratic Party, (PD). There are allegations of illegal financing in Milan over many years with the main person involved closely linked to the party secretary Pierluigi Bersani. Whatever the truth of the allegations, we can be sure that the Berlusconi media will hammer the story, not one to have on the front pages during a campaign. The centrist UDC is also involved in accusations of corruption involving the state owned Finmeccanica.

Today despite the economic and financial disaster that Italy finds itself it, he still has an approval rating of over 20%. The polls give the center left parties a good majority but over the last few months the biggest party and still growing, are the undecided and non-voters. In the past Berlusconi has been able to bring them out.

There is also the possibility that he will try and act from behind the scenes, hand over gracefully to the party secretary Angelino Alfano. But Alfano is a lightweight and Berlusconi likes the limelight too much.

He still has many obstacles to making a comeback. No longer prime minister, he will find it much more difficult to avoid the hearing in his four trials (three for corruption and one for abuse of power and sex with an under age prostitute) and his party too, like the center-left, is divided. He is also 75 and showing his age so it will not be easy.

After years of saying that Berlusconi was finished and about the leave the scene, it would be unwise to presume that this exit is the definitive one.

This blog is an updated version of Berlusconi's Final Act published in Foreign Policy on 16 November.

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