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Berlusconi's defenders reveal their contempt for democracy

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

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

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