Italy: the politics of succession

Is this the end of Berlusconi?

Is this the end?
Tim Hedges
On 9 May 2013 14:45

‘When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him lies on the paths of men’, wrote Longfellow; we follow the way of our predecessors, and the baton of their legacy is passed on to new runners.

The man who has died is Giulio Andreotti, who was nicknamed Beelzebub, not bad for a man who went to mass every day of his adult life. His political life is analysed in an article on a neighbouring age by Tom Gallagher. Andreotti was never finally convicted, Italy having a two appeals procedure, but many people believe he was behind the death of Michele Sindona, the banker who was given a poisoned coffee while in prison, and perhaps of several others, including a journalist.

As Gallagher shows, after the war Italy had a two party system and, since the Communists were never completely trusted, the Christian Democrats, Andreotti’s party, held a near monopoly of power. That power corrupted them. By the time Bettino Craxi’s Social Democrats provided some dependable opposition they too had become corrupted. The State media and even parts of industry were divided into political power bases.

The Mani Pulite ‘clean hands’ corruption enquiries brought to power Silvio Berlusconi in 1994, in what became known as the Second Republic. Berlusconi portrayed himself as a new broom. He was a successful businessman, and many people believed he could not be corrupted because he was already so rich. Alas, in temperament he proved to be as venal as Andreotti and Craxi and many began to wonder if the quiet, juridical revolution of the 1990s had meant anything at all, whether the Second Republic wasn’t the First Republic with a different name.

There were whispers in the press that Massimo d’Alema, the former communist and opponent of Berlusconi, has become rich. There were investigations into the conduct of Berlusconi’s other great opponent, Romano Prodi, while he was at the state industrial holding company IRI. A resentment of politicians began to transcend party politics. Everyone thought they had been poorly served by their political masters.

Berlusconi is not dead but today he stands convicted for the second time on a charge of fiscal fraud (he still has the opportunity to appeal to the Court of Cassation, the last chance, like phoning a friend in Who wants to be a Millionaire). The charge concerns the valuation of film rights and consequent underpayment of tax in his media business.

He has strung out the procedure for so long now, claiming important political business, that the Court of Cassation will not have time to confirm the conviction – if that were what it wanted to do – before it is stopped by the statute of limitations. Silvio supporters, and it usually comes as a surprise to foreigners how many there are, can rest easy. It is extremely unlikely he will ever see the inside of a jail.

Part of the sentence, though, is a ban on holding public office for five years. Berlusconi does not hold an office in the present administration (perhaps for this reason?) but it would seem he has lost the chance to rule from inside the government.

And there are other cases in the pipeline, in particular that of Ruby the Heartstealer, underage for a prostitute (Italy is relaxed about the age of consent but a girl cannot charge until she is 18).

Berlusconi fought a brilliant election campaign in February. He had been a little unseated by Mario Monti calling an election quicker that he had imagined, but he picked himself up and battled hard and intelligently. His proposal to refund the property tax paid the previous year was populist and faintly ridiculous, but touched a nerve with the Italian people. But can this go on?

More trials, more adverse newspaper comment, inability to hold office meaning he can’t produce another coup de théatre to astonish his enemies, as Machiavelli put it. And Old Father Time is beginning to sharpen his scythe: Silvio is 77 this year. There are signs that he is losing his lustre. It may be that the best deal he can do is to secure immunity from prosecution, unless he decides to bring down the new administration.

The new administration, that of Enrico Letta, is in some ways the successor to Berlusconi just as he was, in some ways, the successor to Andreotti and Craxi. There is of course no suggestion that it is corrupt, but it is without doubt intellectually corrupt, being a coalition of groups yards apart politically.

Like a cheaply constructed building in an earthquake zone, it could collapse at any moment. Berlusconi has said that despite his anger at being convicted – he believes it is all the result of a conspiracy against him – this will not bring the government down. But it is easy to see how it would fall: the Centre left hold new primaries bringing on a new leader; the new electoral law is passed; the replacement for the property tax does not please the centre-right and hey presto the government fails to win a vote of confidence.

But this would bring in the final figure into the succession, the last man illuminated by the light his predecessor leaves behind, Beppe Grillo.

Andreotti was the result of too much power; Craxi (who is said to have retired to Tunisia with one of the fountains from Milan) the result of Andreotti making corruption too easy; Berlusconi the result of people wanting something new after the others, and Beppe Grillo the final attempt to bring the whole pack of cards down. He has excluded himself from coalition but a new election would see him returning to the stage.

Will Berlusconi dare to unleash this demon? Or will he retire to his yacht, leaving government in the hands of protagonists who are acceptable but not quite what the people wanted? Has today seen the last gasp of the political maestro or does he have another card up his sleeve?

Tim Hedges is a weekly columnist for the Commentator. He previously worked in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer and novelist

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