Sunday, April 17, 2011

Berlusconi contra mundum

There are many serious issues facing Italy at the moment and I hope that sooner or later I will be able to comment on them – the role of immigrants in Italian society and their integration, the concerns of employers and unions on how to move the economy forward, Italy’s lack of influence in international relations even in areas where there are serious interests. All worthy topics, but once again, it is the Prime Minister who screams for attention and gives cause for grave concern.
This week, the Political Science Association holds its annual conference in London and the coordinater of the Italian politics group, Jim Newell has invited a three of us to either discuss new papers or re-evaluate older papers analysing Berlusconi’s legacy “Italian politics. Quo vadis?” Indeed; I wish we knew. For my part, I am revising the paper I gave in Washington last September. Although much has happened in terms of tactical moves, the underlying analysis remains the same; Berlusconi and his ideas and methods are even more firmly entrenched and Italian democracy though resisting, is seriously under attack and has already been damaged.
Last week, the Chamber of Deputies passed a bill which would reduce the time before the statute of limitations stops criminal proceedings against defendants without a criminal record. It was hotly contested with the opposition mounting a filibuster and demonstrations outside the Chamber. Berlusconi has admitted that it would shorten the time limit on one of his trials. He was referring to the charge that he bribed the English lawyer David Mills to perjure himself. Mills has already been convicted but the sentence was quashed on a technicality. Over the few days, Berlusconi has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of all who oppose him, especially the magistrature.
These speeches are the opening shots in the local election campaign where a good part of Italy will vote on 15 May but even the usual campaign hyperbole, Berlusconi combattivity and vitriol is exceptional.
First, though, it was the judge in a civil case who was attacked. “Armed robbery” is how the Prime Minister described the €750m. damages payable by his Fininvest to CIR. Berlusconi’s lawyer (and sometime minister of defence), Cesare Previti was found guilty of corrupting a judge to annul an agreement which had awarded Italy’s biggest publisher, Mondadori to the CIR in 1991. Instead, because of the corruption, Mondadori was acquired by Fininvest which 20 years later will have to pay damages.
The same day, he also attacked the European Union and in particular, France and Germany, for not helping Italy with the flow of economic migrants from Tunisia “If we can’t reach a common point of view, it’s better to split”. Italy is not about to leave the EU but eurosceptic rhetoric is not limited to the UK or Denmark.
He was even less tender with Italy’s constitution which is where the real danger lies; the day before, he told students at La Sapienza University in Rome “to have a real democracy, we need to change the constitutional structure” he was very clear in what he meant and why the constitution should be changed “because the government has no decisionmaking power but at most can only make a proposal to Parliament. This goes to Parliamentary committees and then to the whole Parliament and finally the Head of State must like it… a law which is a thoroughbred when it leaves Cabinet becomes a hippopotamus by the end… and if some leftwing judges don’t like it, they can cite it before the Constitutional Court which since it is made up of a majority of leftwing judges, overturn it. So to have a real democracy, we must change the Constitution and reform the present institutional architecture”.
On Saturday, he repeated the speech to a

PdL party get-together organised by tourism minister, Michela Vittoria Brambilla (pictured with him) to rapturous applause. This time he went a stage further and called the still unnamed “left wing judges” “subversive”. This came after his supporters had put up posters shouting “Get the Red Brigades out of the Milan courts” following on from Berlusconi’s remarks that the prosecution in his trials were terrorists.
The posters and the remarks were particularly grotesque a the Red Brigades killed judges and prosecutors in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Even the most conservative and potentially pro-Berlusconi judge bridles at hearing his murdered colleagues compared to the terrorists who killed them.
But it is the broader picture which is the most disturbing. This is a man who says explicitly that an elected leader should not be controlled by other powers. Montesquieu and Madison might be turning in their graves but it is today’s Italians who have to deal with the erosion of the separation of powers.
Berlusconi has already passed laws to give himself immunity from prosecution and no doubt will pass others – do deal with his underage prostitution case and the slush funds cases. Already he has proposed limiting the use of telephone taps and he has the numbers in Parliament to do so.
But worse than Berlusconi’s personal measures is the underlying sense that much of the opposition actually agrees with him. According to US ambassador Ronald Spogli in a WikiLeak published 24 Dec 2010, the president of the Democratic Party (PD), the principal opposition party, Massimo D’Alema said in 3 July 2008 that “the magistrature is the greatest threat to the Italian state” referring to the publication of telephone taps.
The PD secretary, Pier Luigi Bersani has just published an interview book in which he says “We have a government that does not respect the separation of powers, and in the last few years, a number of magistrates have also not respected that separation… politics should regain the authority to tell magistrates that they should rigorously respect the boundaries of their field of responsibility”.
So we have a prime minister who calls the judiciary “subversive” and conducts political rallies against them outside the court where he is being tried, a situation which is unprecedented in western democracies. And worse, part of the opposition that disapproves of the tone, but actually rather likes some of the substance.