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.

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French presidential election: Macron and Le Pen projected to reach run-off

The centrist former economy minister and the far-right leader are set to contest the run-off on 7 May.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will contest the run-off of the French presidential election, according to the first official projection of the first-round result.

Macron, the maverick former economy minister, running under the banner of his centrist En Marche! movement, is projected to finish first with an estimated 23.7 per cent of the vote, putting him marginally ahead of Le Pen. The leader of the far-right Front National is estimated to have won 21.7 per cent, with the scandal-hit Républicain François Fillon and the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon tied for third on an estimated 19.5 per cent each. Benoît Hamon, of the governing Socialist Party, is set to finish a distant fourth on just 6.2 per cent. Pollsters Ifop project a turnout of around 81 per cent, slightly up on 2012.

Macron and Le Pen will now likely advance to the run-off on 7 May. Recent polling has consistently indicated that Macron, who at 39 would be the youngest candidate ever to win the French presidency, would probably beat Le Pen with roughly 60 per cent of the vote to her 40. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, he told Agence France Presse that his En Marche! was "turning a page in French political history", and went on to say his candidacy has fundamentally realigned French politics. "To all those who have accompanied me since April 2016, in founding and bringing En Marche! to life, I would like to say this," he told supporters. " 'In the space of a year, we have changed the face of French political life.' "

Le Pen similarly hailed a "historic" result. In a speech peppered with anti-establishment rhetoric, she said: "The first step that should lead the French people to the Élysée has been taken. This is a historic result.

"It is also an act of French pride, the act of a people lifting their heads. It will have escaped no one that the system tried by every means possible to stifle the great political debate that must now take place. The French people now have a very simple choice: either we continue on the path to complete deregulation, or you choose France.

"You now have the chance to choose real change. This is what I propose: real change. It is time to liberate the French nation from arrogant elites who want to dictate how it must behave. Because yes, I am the candidate of the people."

The projected result means the run-off will be contested by two candidates from outside France's establishment left and right parties for the first time in French political history. Should Le Pen advance to the second round as projected, it will mark only the second time a candidate from her party has reached the run-off. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the second round in 2002, but was decisively beaten by Jacques Chirac after left-wingers and other mainstream voters coalesced in a so-called front républicain to defeat the far right.

Fillon has conceded defeat and backed Macron, as have Hamon and the French prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve. "We have to choose what is best for our country," Fillon said. "Abstention is not in my genes, above all when an extremist party is close to power. The Front National is well known for its violence and its intolerance, and its programme would lead our country to bankruptcy and Europe into chaos.

"Extremism can can only bring unhappiness and division to France. There is no other choice than to vote against the far right. I will vote for Emmanuel Macron. I consider it my duty to tell you this frankly. It is up to you to reflect on what is best for your country, and for your children."

Though Hamon acknowledged that the favourite a former investment banker – was no left-winger, he said: "I make a distinction between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic."

Mélenchon, however, has refused to endorse Macron, and urged voters to consult their own consciences ahead of next month's run-off.

The announcement sparked ugly scenes in Paris in the Place de la Bastille, where riot police have deployed tear gas on crowds gathered to protest Le Pen's second-place finish. Reaction from the markets was decidedly warmer: the euro hit a five-month high after the projection was announced.

Now read Pauline Bock on the candidate most likely to win, and the NS'profiles of Macron and Le Pen.

 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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