Friday, March 27, 2009

Black shirt or double breasted suits?

When is a fascist not a fascist? Or more relevant to these time, when is an apparent democrat actually a fascist? Rivers of ink have flowed trying to pin down an acceptable definition of “fascism” and this is not going to add to the flow, but now that Italy’s self-defined “post-fascist” Alleanza Nazionale has dissolved itself ready to merge with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia into the Popolo delle Libertà (People of Freedom), it is important for Italians and other Europeans to know what the new party stands for and above all, what its undisputed leader, Silvio Berlusconi stand for.
It is easy to dismiss him as a thinly disguised fascist, a latterday Mussolini with smiles, hair transplants and off-colour jokes instead of the jutting jaw and high-flown rhetoric. Foreign commentators have called him fascist on many occasions since he “came onto the field” in 1994. When Berlusconi opened the new highspeed rail link between Milan and Rome a few days ago, he was photographed with a railwayman’s cap adding to the picture gallery of Berlusconi in costume alongside the Mussolini’s even bigger range of extravagant headwear. Recently Mario Vargas Llosa called him a “caudillo”, the title Franco gave himself to emulate both Hitler and Mussolini. But, Vargas Llosa added, he “is a democratic caudillo”.
Fascism began its rise to power with violence, the nightstick and castor oil, used violent words constantly in its rhetoric against internal opposition and against other countries and then used real violence against both. Berlusconi in contrast neither uses violence nor threatens it. The most serious emetic that he uses are the mindless variety shows on his television channels which are watched voluntarily by millions rather than forcibly administered castor oil. Mussolini was constantly contemptuous of “democracy” while Berlusconi equally constantly, praises Italy’s democracy which has made him prime minister three times. Mussolini was aggressively nationalistic in word and deed while Berlusconi has never invaded another country and apart from calling his party Forza Italia, his nationalistic speeches don’t go beyond claiming that Italy has beautiful secretaries.
By any standards, Silvio Berlusconi is not a fascist, either crypto- or post-.
He is something new, and even though he thrives on elections, he is less than fully democratic. He sees himself as an elected populist, absolute ruler; one of his first remarks on becoming prime minister in 1994 was that he had been “anointed by the people” and since then, he has frequently made it clear that anyone thus elevated should have no other limit to his power apart from election.
The president of Italy has very limited residual powers but even these have been too much for Berlusconi and he has shown his impatience with all three of the presidents he has had to deal with while he has been PM. Last month he clashed with President Napolitano who had refused to sign a decree law preventing the removal of Eluana Englaro’s life support system. Englaro was in a permanent vegetative state and the Supreme Court had already decided that she had expressed a desire to not be kept alive under those circumstances. Thwarted by both the Court and the President, Berlusconi put a bill to Parliament which was not passed in time to prevent Englaro dying but is now close to passing in a form which will vitiate any living will.
He is also beginning a stand-off with Napolitano over whether he can introduce a new housing measure (which would allow Italians to increase the volume of their houses by 20%) as a decree law or whether he will have to follow the full Parliamentary procedure of a regular bill. Either way, the executive would be taking power from regional and local governments which regulate building permits.
At the same time as trying to sideline the present President, Berlusconi is manoevering to reform Italy’s constitution into a presidential republic in time for him to take over when Napolitano’s mandate ends in 2013.
Then there are bills before Parliament reforming the judiciary in a way which will transfer power from it to the executive; Mr. Berlusconi is very open about his designs and not only won a large majority at the Parliamentary elections last year but is very likely to do the same at the European Parliament elections in June. On the electoral front, Berlusconi is democratic and very successful. He is less favourable to the other conditions of democracy.
Only yesterday, Berlusconi dismissed Parliament as being full of makeweights, people there just to make up the numbers; he has made no secret of his impatience with Parliamentary procedure and his contempt for its delays. He would like to abolish individual members’ votes and see party leaders voting for their whole group.
Ironically, the Parliament was defended by the onetime “post-fascist” Gianfranco Fini and now Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. Fini emphasised the importance of Parliamentary procedure and forced Berlusconi to backtrack.
Unlike Berlusconi, Fini has fully embraced Italy’s anti-fascist heritage and its democratic institutions. He has been to the commemoration of the Ardeatine Caves massacre (where Nazis killed 335 Romans in 1944) on more than one occasion and last week even praised the Resistance for having made Italy a free country. A few days ago he explicitly retracted his remark of fifteen yeas ago that “Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the 20th C”. In any case, he has been highly critical of Mussolini on many occasions, much to the ire of Mussolini’s granddaughter, Alessandra.
Fini will also take part in the celebration of the end of World War II on 25 April for the first time this year, an event that Berlusconi has always avoided.
So the paradox is that the man who started as follower of one Mussolini’s most loyal henchmen is now a paragon of constitutional virtue while Berlusconi is emptying the constitution of its democratic substance to sit in its shell not as a fascist but proudly, as Berlusconi.