Ultimately Silvio Berlusconi was defeated by the logic and style of his political adventure. The people he gathered at the top of his movement were a motley crew of former Christian Democrats and socialists, with a few rogue communists-turned-conservatives – united not so much by a set of ideas as by Berlusconi’s success story: his ability to overcome temporary difficulties, bounce back and gain the approval of a large part of the country again and again.
His followers were loyal because he guaranteed prominent positions and lucrative careers. It is hardly surprising that his People of Freedom party began to waver when the leader appeared weakened by his frivolous private life, hesitant political management and the harsh judgment of European colleagues. Berlusconi called those who abstained in Tuesday’s budget vote “traitors” because he has always considered them vassals and clients, rather than members of the same party.
The same applied to foreign policy. He was convinced that his charm and extravagant hospitality in his numerous mansions would raise the status of his country. He began to think of diplomacy as an exercise in seduction and foreign policy as the sum of his relations with friends such as George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, possibly, Tony Blair.
The case of Libya is indicative. The co-operation treaty signed in 2008 made promising reading not only for the oil giant Eni, but also for hundreds of Italian companies. Yet the Libyan leader’s extravagant behaviour in Rome and the excessive displays of affection from Berlusconi raised many eyebrows. And, while France and Britain had leading roles in the revolt against Gaddafi’s regime, Italy had no standing and Berlusconi was viewed as an uncomfortable and impotent partner. It must have been a dramatic realisation for Berlusconi that friendship, in international relations, can be a very ephemeral thing. In the end, his demise was accelerated by the verdict of his European partners. The personalisation of international politics has come back to hit him like a boomerang.
When Berlusconi appeared on the political stage in 1994, Italians knew that he owned three television channels, a daily paper and a number of other companies. They also knew that he had been taken to court in connection with his business activities, and would have an enormous conflict of interest. But those who voted for him had two good reasons. They hoped he would stop an untrusted leftwing coalition made up of progressive Catholics and former communists; and enact overdue market reforms, setting the country on the path of growth. On that second point they were proved dramatically wrong. Berlusconi tried to reform the labour market, fiscal system and judiciary – and planned some major public works, like the great bridge to link Sicily and the continent. Ultimately, however, he proved to be hesitant, overly cautious and perpetually prone to procrastination.
When he came across obstacles raised by professional lobbies, vested-interest group and partners of his coalition, such as Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, he would drop the problem and go on to make other promises that would soon be forgotten and disregarded. He did so, probably, because he needed laws specifically designed to protect him from judicial inquiries, and in order to get those laws approved by parliament he had to contract a number of debts which had to be repaid. A debtor cannot challenge the interests of his creditors.
Take the judiciary. Italy has a system in which prosecutors and judges belong to the same career. Because of the fight against the mafia and early 90s scandals involving several political parties, prosecutors have become very visible in public life and have considered themselves, in some cases, entrusted with a national mission. After his entrance into the political arena, Berlusconi became the target of a considerable number of judicial inquiries: too many, perhaps, to avoid the impression that he had become some prosecutors’ sole raison d’etre. Many Italians, not necessarily in Berlusconi’s camp, thought that it would be useful to separate the careers of prosecutors and judges. But every attempt raised the suspicion that reform was designed to favour the prime minister and thus doomed to failure.
This does not mean that there is nothing positive in what Berlusconi will be leaving behind when he will finally resigns. A recent university reform has been generally welcomed by the academic world. The fight against organised crime in the south has produced some remarkable results, in spite of the presence of some controversial figures in Berlusconi’s government. The country still needs important structural reforms, but the pace of public works has improved. The project for the creation of a federal state has made some progress. The management of public debt, until the latest developments, appeared wise and efficient.
Not all the financial difficulties of the country can be attributed to Berlusconi’s government. Europe does not like him, but Brussels probably hopes that he will stay in power long enough to have parliament approve the new stability package with the measures requested by the European Central Bank and the partners of the eurozone. These measures are not liked by the left and they should become law before a change of government.
The fact remains, however, that the great reformer of the 90s has not kept his promises. He has done very little to change the more dated and conservative features of Italian societies. Ultimately, this is considerably more serious than the frivolity of his private life.
Sergio Romano, a former diplomat and a columnist for Corriere della Sera.