A new Indian friend made the mistake of asking me this question via email: “I want to ask you about Berlusconi’s expulsion from Parliament. Do you think this could actually be the beginning of the end of his political career or is it another stunt?”
I rarely, if ever, comment on politics, although I’ve been following it since I was reading daily newspapers in middle school and I’ve had a chance to meet a few politicians in my previous avatar as a full-time journo, also having to sedate them on a morning political talk-show at times. And anyway, people around where I grew up in Northern Italy have always been inevitably animated by the political discourse. Almost uselessly so. Anyway, here’s my reply, for those who are interested in such historical cycles.
As for Berlusconi, I shall not be brief.
His legal troubles? They are only likely to attract more votes from his aficionados. His expulsion from the Italian Parliament is not likely to be “the beginning of the end” of his political career. It has been one more reason to be at the center of attention, where he needs to be in order to control as much as he can the outcome of his legal trouble and political battles.
But that is not really the real relevant question. What could’ve been more threatening was the division within his own coalition party.
But I seriously doubt that the latest schism within his political movement is the beginning of the end of his political career. First of all, Berlusconi, whether we like it or not, has undoubtedly changed Italy. The sheer fact that the best hope for the center-left electorate is now Matteo Renzi is tangible proof of that.
Renzi represent, at least in terms of political communication, the Berlusconi culture, which is a mish-mash of second hand 1950’s American values, fake liberalism, pro-business promises and dreams supposedly in favor of the modernization on Italy. Renzi persuades with his smiles, his winks, his dynamism, he seduces with the power of theater, not with the substance of politics. This is why Berlusconi has triumphed. Well, that and a lot of crafty and often instinctive political genius. In 2006, Italian auteur Nanni Moretti perfectly captured this in an interesting movie called “Il Caimano,” inspired by the concepts I just exposed.
After a disastrous vote in Parliament this summer, the political movement that just split up, the People for Freedoms (PDL, Popolo delle Libertà) was lingering sadly in the polls, somewhere below 23 per cent. Once Berlusconi’s sidekick Angelino (“Little Angel”) Alfano – deputy prime minister of the coalition government of Enrico Letta – decided to split from his tutor, things now actually look rosier for the right wing. Absurd? Follow my math: in current polls, the sum of Alfano’s splinter group plus Berlusconi’s renewed Forza Italia, the original political movement he had founded in ’94, now reach above 28 per cent. It’s 5 points higher compared to when Alfano and Berlusconi were in the same party. Alfano has announced that his movement would ally itself with Berlusconi after the next elections. So what has brought about this so-called political divorce is a fake conflict. It is a tactical move in a long term strategy.
This is actually a very ancient game that used to be played by the Christian Democrats who ruled Italy since World War II until the Clean Hands operations of ’92. Constant battles between what were called “currents,” after many negotiations, a game of musical chairs in the Cabinet.
Italy has had, on an approximate average, a new government every 6 months since WWII. But only fools would think this has ever represented instability (except when the Communist party gained the majority in the European elections on ’76. And actually not even then). This was a constant game of re-balancing power within the ruling party, but guaranteeing continuity, which was especially important to American allies who had – and still have – strategic army bases in the peninsula.
In a way, what we are seeing is more of the same. Nihil sub sole novum.
What looks like a divorce is a maneuver to gain some moderate anti-Berlusconi votes. I would venture to say, actually, that this is a maneuver to gain back votes which could be attracted by Renzi’s great appeal to the moderate voter.
Berlusconi is not done. Nothing has changed.
And to paraphrase the overly quoted Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard: in Italy, as usual, everything has to change so that nothing changes.”