Silvio Berlusconi’s government may not be long for this world, but the prime minister is far from losing his grip on Italy.
The political crisis there is to a large degree the depressing story of a country where a majority of its political class has forgotten that to be a representative in a democratic republic means to serve the common good, not to serve one man. Even as it faces down a mounting economic crisis, Italy has a long way to go before it can be considered a reliably democratic country once again.
In the aftermath of a budget vote on Tuesday that made clear he no longer had a majority behind him, Mr. Berlusconi declared that he would resign as soon as Parliament passed a slate of economic reforms demanded by the European Union. That does not mean, however, that Mr. Berlusconi won’t retain a considerable part of his power and continue to affect Italian political life.
After the unity government under Mario Monti, a former European commissioner, arranges for new elections, Mr. Berlusconi could maneuver behind the scenes to place one of his most loyal servants, Angelino Alfano, the secretary of Mr. Berlusconi’s party and the Dmitri A. Medvedev to his Vladimir V. Putin, as the next prime minister.
It’s a realistic possibility because, though Mr. Berlusconi has fallen in popularity, his opponents are still quite divided: the Union of Christian and Center Democrats party, the center-left Democratic Party and the radical left are unlikely to form a working coalition.
And there can be little doubt that, to defeat his enemies, Mr. Berlusconi would fall back on an argument that he has successfully exploited in the past, namely that he, the people’s choice as prime minister, would have succeeded if it weren’t for a few malignant and ungrateful traitors. Indeed, he has already labeled as traitors the members of his own party who voted against him on Tuesday.
But this is more than a rhetorical tactic: Mr. Berlusconi’s behavior and his own words eloquently reveal how his government is based on gaining loyalty through private favors. He truly feels betrayed that elected politicians would put the voters’ interests over their loyalty to him.
He can be forgiven for feeling this way. Because of his enormous personal power — built on an immense fortune, the proprietorship of a media empire, the rhetorical skills of a demagogue and the control of a political party that he created — Mr. Berlusconi has been able to attain the loyalty of many people. The system he has built has the features of a lordly court: a signore sits at the center, surrounded by a large number of courtesans and servants who owe him their power, their wealth and their fame.
Many of the people Mr. Berlusconi has surrounded himself with are corrupt and servile, all the easier for him to dominate them. People with principles are regarded as dangerous enemies.
So why has he finally fallen from office? Such a system can work only as long as the courtesans and servants have faith that the signore will remain in power. Mr. Berlusconi long ago showed that he was unlikely to fall for domestic reasons. But now pressure from international markets and the European Union has convinced some of his courtesans that he can no longer guarantee their re-election and their privileges. As a result, some of them are looking elsewhere for more concrete opportunities for political survival.
This provides Italy with a chance to begin a process of civic and political regeneration. To do so it must liberate itself not only from Mr. Berlusconi, but also from his system of power, and from the political and moral bad habits that he has reinforced and relied on in the political elite and in large sectors of public opinion.
The first step should be to abandon the belief, promoted by Mr. Berlusconi’s elite, that to be a free citizen means to be free from the law and civic duties. Italians must also reject the other fundamental dogma of Mr. Berlusconi’s doctrine, namely that the people are not only the sovereign but the judge, and that politicians must therefore be responsible to the people, and not merely to the magistrates. And finally, Italians must rediscover a healthy republican and liberal wariness of any sort of enormous power.
This means going beyond a few necessary reforms. It must be a serious process of moral renewal inspired by the true principles of citizenship.
For this to be possible, it takes a political leader capable of uniting, inspiring and rekindling the passion for active citizenship. I may be wrong, but I fail to see a leader with those qualities in the country’s political landscape. Until one emerges, it is premature to proclaim the end of Mr. Berlusconi’s Italy.
Maurizio Viroli, a professor of political theory at Princeton and the University of Italian Switzerland, in Lugano and the author of The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy.