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14 June 2023

How Silvio Berlusconi privatised democracy

Throughout his career, the Italian politician combined extravagance and offence with a fundamental hollowness.

By David Broder

Silvio Berlusconi, who died on 12 June aged 86, led four Italian governments – but was never, he claimed, a politician. A real-estate magnate and later a media and football tycoon, in 1994 he announced that he was “entering the field” of electoral competition as an “entrepreneur and a citizen”. If reticent about politicians, he surely did a lot of politics: the slogan Berlusconi presidente was plastered across eight general election campaigns over three decades. Yet his earlier – or rather, parallel – career in business allowed him to posture as an outsider to the republic and its institutions. Where Italians might address a cardinal as la Sua eminenza, eminency, Berlusconi earned the sobriquet la Sua emittenza, broadcaster. He preferred not to be called a politician but a uomo del fare – a man who gets things done.

Berlusconi’s contempt for politics as a vocation fitted the mood of the time when he entered public life. The end of the Cold War, and the proclaimed “end of history”, had fractured not just the communists, but also the long-dominant Christian-Democrats and the socialists, particularly after a series of corruption scandals exploded in the early 1990s. Far from a fresh caste of ideologues, Berlusconi insisted that Italy needed men of experience in leadership, who were able to make the state work like a business. His claims were outwardly non-ideological – and yet he called for a market revolution to propel Italy into the future.

Berlusconi was not an outsider; his ties to the 1980s socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi had been decisive in allowing him to build national private TV stations, which were previously a public monopoly. His innovation lay in his promise not to “create the umpteenth party or faction”. His Forza Italia campaign vehicle had no need for local branches, or even the internal elections beloved of Italy’s mass parties. Rather, it had a CEO, and his business associates as the candidates. Berlusconi heralded the privatisation of democracy itself. He declared his political philosophy from his desk. There were no journalists, just the private citizen broadcasting his opinion, using his TV stations like a trillion-lire Facebook wall.

Key to this version of Berlusconi was the promise of “getting things done”. Three decades on, even obituaries in sympathetic media have struggled to identify concrete policy achievements without resorting to hollow boasting. Striking in this sense is the prominence that right-wing outlets have given to a 2002 photo of a three-way handshake between the billionaire, George W Bush and Vladimir Putin, recalling when, as Secolo d’Italia wrote, Berlusconi “ended the Cold War”.

More emblematic for critics was Berlusconi’s 2001 so-called contract with Italians. This pledged to slash taxes and unemployment, and boost pensions, policing and building projects. Berlusconi said he would leave office if he failed to deliver on at least four of these promises. When he, inevitably, fell short of the targets, he resisted legal complaints, insisting that the “contract” was not in fact a binding document.

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[See also: How Berlusconi became a model for Britain]

On the day Berlusconi died, I was asked on to LBC to comment on his death. As I ­connected to the audio, I heard Michael Gove talk of a “significant figure in the history of our times” and the “sadness at his passing”. Gove, however, was not speaking on Italian politics; he was giving a political obituary for Boris Johnson. Analogies between the two men seem obvious; in 2003 Johnson even met with the Italian prime minister for the Spectator, later writing that “after decades in which Italian politics was in thrall to a procession of gloomy, portentous, jargon-laden partitocrats, there appeared this influorescence of American gung-hoery”.

Even if reports of Johnson’s political death may be premature, Berlusconi is the more genuinely historic figure – not just a career politician masquerading as an entertainer, but one who permanently realigned the political system. His most important political progeny is the so-called centre-right alliance, which has for 30 years eroded the barriers between conservatives and the far right of fascist derivation. Since 1994, with sporadic break-ups, this electoral pact has aligned his party, Forza Italia, with Lega (an anti-immigration party) and the post-fascist force known as Fratelli d’Italia. In a 2019 speech Berlusconi boasted of this achievement: “We created the centre right… we legitimised and constitutionalised the Lega and the fascists.” Berlusconi’s description of his own allies as “fascists” expressed an important reality: he brought into government forces that had long been barred.

Italy was once unusual in being governed by a party with a direct genealogy from 1920s fascism. ­Berlusconi’s 1994-95 government was the first in Europe where a self-styled “liberal” right brought such partners into coalition. Now, under Giorgia Meloni, the post-fascist party is the dominant force. Yet the arrangement is no longer so odd. In Stockholm, Ulf Kristersson’s ­government, formed in 2022, relies on the support of the nationalist Sweden Democrats. In Spain, Partido Popular hopes to form a coalition with the far-right Vox party after the country’s July election.

Is Meloni Berlusconi’s heir? The Italian prime minister served as the minister of youth in Berlusconi’s final government from 2008 to 2011, but she does not speak warmly of him in her memoir: Meloni writes that she came from a different “political culture” that was “difficult for him completely to accept”. In 2021 she criticised his support for Mario Draghi’s government, insisting that she alone represented a “monogamous” right unwilling to make pacts with the centre left.

Fratelli d’Italia wants to promote Meloni as a “mother and stateswoman”, but the party’s roots in postwar neofascism, its more structured party organisation, and more programmatic vision of its plans for government, mark it apart from Berlusconi’s model. Yet Meloni also plans constitutional changes that would complete her predecessor’s “presidentialist” remake of Italian politics by introducing a directly elected head of government.

Even this is not just an Italian story: the decline of mass parties and the rise of presidential-style celebrity candidates is well established across the democratic world. Berlusconi showed the possibility of polarising a democratic political system around one man – belying predictions that electoral defeats, economic crises or judicial convictions had finished him off. Instead, he turned the setbacks to his advantage, alleging a conspiracy behind each failure and each prosecution. With the death of optimistic visions of the future – even the free-market ones that he heralded in the 1990s – Berlusconi leaves behind a world of political “fandom” in which parties and policies are replaced with heroes, their admirers and the enemies who bring them down.

There were many sides to Silvio Berlusconi – from the dynamic businessmen who “entered the field” in 1994, to the playboy ever ready to comment on the attractiveness of his female critics, to the convicted tax fraudster and, later in life, the self-declared grandfather of the nation and supporter of technocratic governments. Yet in whatever guise, Berlusconi combined extravagance and offence with a fundamental hollowness – an icon of our postmodern, post-truth times.

[See also: How Silvio Berlusconi became Italy’s kingmaker]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out