The political situation in Italy has for a long time been something of a running joke and people have enjoyed poking fun at it for a number of years. Until recently the standard joke was pointing out how many changes of government have happened in how many years.
This attitude, in part shows a certain arrogance; the people of other countries patting themselves on the back for having such a sane and well run country and for having a group of politicians that would in no way fiddle their expenses or the system. It seems it is still easier to point out someone else’s failing other than your own. It also happily conforms to the stereotype of the disorganized Italians. This is just one example of the lazy pigeonholing of foreigners that almost everyone, to a larger or lesser extent, still tends to do unless they make a conscious effort not to.
If we go back to Italy, lesser-known is that whilst the number of changes in government was undoubtedly high, the Christian Democracy party was the largest single party in the parliament from 1946 to 1994 and many of these changes of government were really reshuffling of coalitions with the same Prime Minister being reappointed immediately. Even less well-known is the fact that the CIA were in part responsible for giving that party a boost and keeping them in power. This was done after the war, much the same as it was in Greece, to stop a communist/socialist alliance becoming elected.
Despite outside meddling, throughout the 50s and 60s the standard of life in Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, improved considerably for most people and it was in part due to the gains in this period that now many Italian families, and not necessarily only the well-to-do, have a second home, usually by the beach. The mess that Italy is in now means in fact that many people are trying to sell these second homes, but as everyone is in the same mess they are finding it hard to do so. These second homes are not however a sign of real wealth. So many Italians are now unemployed, underemployed or earning considerably less than the legal minimum wage that another of the stereotypes about Italians living at home with their parents for too long is becoming truer by the day.
Nowadays, the Italy joke has changed and it is difficult to think about Italy without its “crowning turd in the waterpipe”, Silvio Berlusconi. There is baffled incomprehension all round as to just how this man can survive scandal after scandal and still remain in his position.
Financial and political corruption, prostitution, any number of gaffes and yet he is still there. How is it possible?
Well, I have spent some time going back and forth from Italy and it is too easy to say that the answer is to be found in the lazy stereotypes of corruption and incompetence.
If I could compare with the UK for a moment not too long ago there was a megalomaniac PM who believed (or said he believed) that he was on a mission from God, who invaded several other countries, whose party was involved in corruption allegations (Formula 1 money, cash for access, cash for honours etc) and who most people professed to hate. He also consorted with other war criminals. And yet, this man won every election he entered. After the unnecessary and illegal wars and most of the sleaze, people were still voting for him. In part this was due to his cosy relationship with the major media magnates.
In Italy one of the obvious and oft-cited factors in Berlusconi’s survival is the fact that he controls the media of that country. This has been a major factor in his success. As well as owning the major private broadcaster (Mediaset), his government has the power of appointment over the state broadcaster (RAI). Sky were beginning to stick their nose into the market in much the same way they did in the UK, much to the annoyance of the Berlusconi, by buying up the football coverage. However, recent events have meant that Sky has been occupied elsewhere and there is less talk of this now.
Despite controlling most of the media, the coverage isn’t as crude as something like Fox News in the USA. When the Replublicans are in power Fox revert to the role of cheerleader, when it is the Democrats they are vicious watchdogs. In Italy it plays rather differently. The Berlusconi media do not run constant Silvio Our Saviour stuff, even if there are one or two rather crude examples of that. No, instead it is a constant attack on the opposition. This has led to an attitude in many Italians of “Silvio is an embarrassment, but the others are worse”. Although the specifics are different, this attitude is similar to the one that saw Britain’s Tony Blair consistently re-elected.
And in many places he is hated in the way that Blair was. For example, he has consistently talked about building an enormous bridge from the Italian mainland to Sicily. The polls in Sicily have shown that the Sicilians simply do not want this bridge for entirely sensible reasons. They don’t think it is a good idea to build a bridge between two earthquake zones, they would rather the money was spent on the roads, trains and general infrastructure in Sicily, they are proud of their island status, and finally, with things being the way they are in the South of Italy, they are not sure that the thing would be built properly without money being creamed off to some god-knows-where. Consequently, when someone threw a miniature model of the Milan Cathedral at Berlusconi and broke his teeth, the big joke on facebook was “ora un ponte se lo può fare ai denti” (now he can make a bridge for his teeth). There are also daily protests and mini-strikes that mostly pass without mention.
Whilst he is consistently mocked at home, the mockery and derision from the rest of the world towards him has in a certain sense actually helped Berlusconi. Whenever he is attacked on the BBC or in the major news media there is some statement about how this is an attack on Italy and not on him specifically. There was a period of diminishing returns on this strategy but the recent Merkel-Sarkozy affair has allowed for a reinvigoration of this tactic.
Apart from the media, the craven and/or greedy behavior of the opposition parties in Italy has constantly helped him to survive. Parties in his coalition have supported him in confidence votes despite criticizing him in public. In other cases, if one party has jumped ship from the coalition another one has jumped aboard in return for a few promises and therefore kept him alive.
The good news is that, he is on the way out. He will not survive another election. One of the reasons may not be politics or economics but in fact, religion. Much is made of Italy’s Catholic heritage but I am not quite sure how serious the majority of Italians take it. For example, if you go around any city in Italy you will find condom machines in plain sight outside of every chemist, and not short of customers. Divorce is for the most part not considered bad and abortion, while still controversial, is broadly accepted.
Abortion is though, still an important issue for voters and the parties must on some issues be seen to do what their base wants. For example, there was an enormous fuss made when the EU tried to have crucifixes removed from public school classrooms. The Italian government argued that these were a cultural and not a religious manifestation and should, therefore, be allowed to stay in the classroom. Berlusconi has pushed this too far however. The recent sex scandals are for a lot of people less important than the political, legal, and economic mess he has created or at least worsened. But a large part of his base came from voters of the now defunct Christian Democracy party, and they will not vote for him again in the light of these scandals.
Recent polls suggest that a quarter of the Italian electorate still support him but with the economic crisis worsening the last card he can play, “I’m a successful businessman, I understand the economy,” is not going to make win the game.
Who will come after him is the big question and unsettlingly it may well be the Lega Nord. The Lega are a far-right party that also wish for secession from Italy. At their rallies you can see England, Ireland and, unfortunately for me as a leftist independence supporting Scot, Scotland flags being waved. They maintain they have some sort of Celtic heritage. The fact that their politics are absolutely nothing like those being enacted by the Scottish government doesn’t stop some people making another lazy comparison in this, and this is despite the facts that the economic, cultural, political and historical situations are radically different. Also, it is debatable at this point how much of a desire they really show for secession. It is certainly shouted a lot at their rallies but as part of the Berlusconi government they seem to be more about following neocon economics with a shedload of racism thrown in than actual separation.
The left have a lot of work to do and there have been a few false dawns in their regard. Time will tell.
To finish, certain people should stop laughing at the Italians. The normal Italian person is Berlusconi’s victim, not his supporter. Even if he has been more supported in the past than he is now, the world is full of people who consistently vote against their own interests. One doesn’t need to look to far from home to find them.
In the specific case of Berlusconi, if I am in Italy and someone asks me about him then I always say that he is a clown but unfortunately he is not a harmless clown. Before the most recent round of scandals, Slavoj Zizek called him about right:
Berlusconi is a significant figure, and Italy an experimental laboratory where our future is being worked out. If our political choice is between permissive-liberal technocratism and fundamentalist populism, Berlusconi’s great achievement has been to reconcile the two, to embody both at the same time … This is perhaps the saddest aspect of his reign: his democracy is a democracy of those who win by default, who rule through cynical demoralization.
In today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the bourgeois, [and Berlusconi and the Bourgeouis] openly exploits it as a means to protect his own economic interest, and who parades his personal life as if he were taking part in a reality TV show.
As it happens, when he is gone, which won’t be long, like many of the people who have been kicked out of the Grande Fratello house, it seems he will have the chance to (re)start a music career.