Berlusconi's defenders reveal their contempt for democracy

The former prime minister's personality cult has damaged Italian politics.

In June journalists from all over the world waited for hours in an Italian court for the verdict in Silvio Berlusconi’s famous trial for corruption and prostitution. This was replicated some days ago in the guilty verdict on tax fraud and his ban from public office.

In some ways, it was not only the media mogul on trial. These are also decisions on the behaviour of some ruling elites, public ethics, and the working of contemporary democracies. Magistrates are, again, at the centre of Italian political life. The "Rubygate" verdict already offended almost all sectors of Italy’s political and cultural centre-right and their media. Their opinion seems to be that politicians’ morality should not be judged, and such trials are certainly politically motivated. Some even believe that votes and electoral victories would grant them a privileged status and, especially with a popular leader like Berlusconi, a sort of judicial immunity.

Italy is historically a country where politics also “matters” a lot, perhaps even too much. One should then forget the separation of powers, and what would happen in Northern European and American countries is a main politician was accused and then convicted. Italy is, after all, “Italy”, and for the centre-right it would be better to contextualise Berlusconi’s case.

For the July verdict some MPs called for street demonstrations and resistance to shield their leader. These scandals and trials are indeed important for Berlusconi’s image. In the country of the Vatican, and with a substantial Catholic electorate, it is the moral sphere which has been under the spotlight. Naturally, there can also be some political implications for the government. What people abroad tend to forget is that Berlusconi’s People of Freedom is governing with the centre-left Democratic Party. He possibly thought that the backing of this government would give him a sort of “protection” – though, it might last at least until this autumn giving Berlusconi time to quietly re-organise his forces and eventually play the card of the persecuted (and there are other trials coming). Some of his most loyal MPs and ministers will intensify the clashes in the government. They will, for example, push for policies reducing taxes, ignoring the commitments with the EU, and, especially, reforming the judiciary. How, and why, this latter policy should be pursued so vigorously in a nation with high unemployment and poor economic growth is open to discussion.

Yet, it is the peculiar understanding of democracy which is more striking here. Politicians are continuously criticising judges and the judicial system. Their propaganda is that these are basically left-wing entities. Magistrates have become, in this bizarre reading, an “anomaly” promoting “subversive acts”. Some Italian representatives of the moderate European People’s Party believe that this is an evident case of “persecution”, representing “judicial incivility”, and even an (unclear) example of theocracy. To borrow again their own words, the June verdict was a “complete disgrace”, even a “coup d’état”. Berlusconi’s lawyers will then probably try to bring his case – at least for this tax fraud and banning from public offices – to the European (judicial) level. In sum, in many believe that these judges are genuinely willing to rewrite Italy’s recent political history. And, as Berlusconi apparently saved Italy from “communists”, would he do the same with these judges?

To be fair, this also represents the legacy of years characterised by the cult of Berlusconi’s personality and his almost holy leadership (and along with a dismantling of concepts like public ethics). Angelino Alfano, the current vice-premier and Berlusconi’s associate, invited the media tycoon to carry on and defend the “values, ideals, and programs” that millions of Italians (apparently) share with him. One should wonder if these values should include morality, and what is currently acceptable in modern societies. This would be considered unacceptable in other nations, and especially where the media enjoy more freedom and are not subsidised with public money (and therefore by political parties), and where “responsibility” is a common word in the vocabulary of politicians and society. Is this instead any form of modern liberal politics?

Paradoxically, and also given the lack of liberal reforms under Berlusconi’s governments, his movement is often (self-) represented as the “moderates”, and, in the words of the spokesman of the People of Freedom, “an amazing reference point for liberals […], modernisers, and for everyone willing to oppose the fiscal, bureaucratic, and judicial oppression”. Berlusconi will not therefore abandon politics (like many of his western colleagues would do). After this very recent verdict, he said that Italians should give his party a majority in elections to make reforms – and, once more, starting from the judicial system. It is evident how “reform” is merely a fashionable word on the Italian soil. Resignation will not happen also because of such popular rhetoric promoting the idea that part of the judicial system is corrupted and influenced by the centre-left.

Ironically, this is the same moderate left which has been accused for a couple of decades by the media tycoon of being “communist”, it is governing with the right, and not keen to oppose Berlusconi. Some of its politicians suggested that parliaments and political parties should not be influenced by this judicial saga. It would be interesting to see if they will “save” him even after this verdict and its international coverage. Will they vote to dismiss him as a senator? The President of the Republic, the internationally respected former communist Giorgio Napolitano, argued that Italy needs governmental stability and continuity. This is certainly true. However, some common sense would similarly suggest that allegations of corruption do usually influence politics in much of the democratic world. Some politicians will instead look for an amnesty legislation for Berlusconi, and some amendments to the existing and coming laws.

This tells us, nonetheless, a lot about the state, and quality, of democracy in some European countries – where public interests, morality, and expertise do not always seem to be the rule. These are also the same places that are suffering more from the lack of economic growth and social inequalities. This makes Italy’s politicians look like some of their fellow southern European counterparts. Setting aside the poor effects of the EU-led austerity, they often proved to be inadequate. They were unable to modernise their countries, and strongly contributed to the increase of public debts by also over-funding political parties and wasting state money (including for electoral purposes and clientelism) in recent decades. This did not help these beautiful nations to benefit from their (many) strengths. Similarly, some of Italy’s local powers, at times, mirrored some of the Eastern European right-leaning nationalisms and oligarchies – with attempts to control other institutional powers, dismiss the functions of parliaments, limit media freedom, and promote an unequal society where politicians and their affiliates would have an advantaged role and unchallenged privileges, and where foreigners were often unwelcome.

Domestic civil societies are, however, often in better shape. Protests, even if “economically” motivated, develop across nations, especially when austerity affects much of the population and some privileges are perceived as less tolerable. Many Italians peacefully voted for Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement exclusively to protest against the existing political class. In the recent regional elections, many preferred to show their disillusionment by not voting. Berlusconi’s party lost millions of electors. Given this, politicians should learn how to reconnect with society, putting “people” and public interests again at the hearth of policies. In this sense, it is not rebellion that Italy requires, it merely needs a more serious and committed political elite – one willing to look at the fruitful examples of those Italians who built a nation-state and a European community based on unity and equality. If one does not learn from history, and put democratic cultures at the centre of any serious political project, it can be difficult to imagine building any better future.

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book on transnational neo-fascism will be published by Cambridge University Press

A demonstration by Berlusconi supporters on 4 August outside his house in Rome. (Getty.)

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Photo: Getty
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Britain cannot shirk its duty to defend Hong Kong from China's authoritarianism

Arrests of pro-democracy activists show China is breaching its commitments to the “one country, two systems” agreement.

When Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in June that the Sino-British Joint Declaration no longer has any “practical significance”, shivers were sent down the spines of those who want democracy to flourish in Hong Kong.

“It is not at all binding for the central government's management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover,” he said.

Going by the British government's failure to respond firmly to the jailing of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow for standing up for democracy, it appears the UK agrees.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, was committed to the “one country, two systems” principle, making Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of China but ensuring a range of freedoms, which future British governments would ensure were upheld.

China’s creeping influence over Hong Kong’s legal affairs and freedom of speech are not new. Earlier this year, Amnesty International said the human rights situation in Hong Kong was at its worst since the handover in 1997. That assessment followed the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, later found to have been in the custody of the Chinese police, with one describing having been blindfolded and kept in a tiny cell. In other instances journalists have been attacked by police. 

But in Hong Kong, resistance is on display in familiar scenes on the streets. Tens of thousands of people have marched through the financial and legal hub in protest at the jailing of the three pro-democracy activists for their role in the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 – a fundamentally peaceful movement.

It was a moment where people came out to fight for universal suffrage, which I continue to support as key to safeguarding the island’s stability and prosperity (and something Hong Kong’s Basic Law secures by stating that the chief executive should be selected by “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”).

For showing courage in fighting for universal suffrage, Wong has already served 80 hours of community service and Law 120 hours. Chow received a three-week suspended prison sentence a year ago. Yet now Wong has been jailed for six months, Chow for seven months and Law for eight months.

Wong was even summoned again to court today for an ongoing contempt charge related to the 2014 "Occupy" pro-democracy protests.

Perhaps more importantly, Wong is now not eligible to stand for the legislative council for five years due to his six-month jail sentence, while Law, who was a member of the council, was removed from office.

This all comes after a 2016 order from Beijing for Hong Kong’s government to dismiss officials thought lacking in their allegiance to China, which led to six legislators being banned from holding office.

Many, including Hong Kong’s last Governor, Chris Patten, have suggested Wong, Law and Chow's sentences were a deliberate attempt to prevent them from taking on these legislative positions.

Patten added that he hopes friends of Hong Kong will speak out, having previously written the UK is “selling its honour” to secure trade deals with China, letting down pro-democracy activists who have been trying to fight to maintain freedoms that were guaranteed during the deal that ended over 100 years of British rule.

The prising open of the case by the Hong Kong government to push for tougher punishments reinforces concerns about Beijing’s willingness to interfere in Hong Kong’s democracy. As Amnesty International stated, seeking jail terms was a “vindictive attack” on freedom of expression.

China’s enthusiasm for subverting democracy has recently been on show in its attempts to censor Cambridge University Press (CUP), which initially complied with a Chinese request to block access to more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly, a leading China studies journal, including articles on Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Following public pressure CUP have now reversed their position.

But while freedoms granted under the Joint Declaration may have contributed to Hong Kong becoming fertile ground for those supportive of democracy and critical of China, it does not free the United Kingdom from its responsibility to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle, which promises extensive autonomy and freedoms to the island, except in the area of foreign relations and military defence.

Read more: The dream deferred by Chris Patten

The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty. It is registered with the UN and is still in force. As the UK is a co-signatory, it should be doing all it can to make sure it is upheld.

Yet, in late June one of Hong Kong’s most respected democracy activists Martin Lee described the British government as "just awful. I’m afraid I cannot find any kind words to say about that.”

It is not for either China or the UK to unilaterally decide the Joint Declaration is null and void. The people of Hong Kong understand that and are standing up for democracy in the face of adversity. Our Government has a duty to stand by them.

Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green