Berlusconi’s thoughts on the size of Angela Merkel’s bottom shouldn't overshadow the future of Italy

Silvio Berlusconi is now dead man walking. But his core political ideals were sound. Can Italy find a leader to put those ideals into practice once the obsession with sex scandals has subsided?

The way it used to be...
Edoardo Ferrazzani
On 27 September 2011 11:43

The downgrade of Italy’s public debt last week by Standard & Poor’s was just the latest in a string of deafening alarm bells for Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government.

More than ever, Italy needs a responsive government, deep reforms, and the establishment of the kind of new vision for the country that is so conspicuously absent today.

But surely, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going? Unfortunately, Italian politics doesn’t quite work like that. The reverse is probably more likely.

The centre-right majority in parliament gets weaker and more fractious every day, despite what the Prime Minister says.

For longtime observers of Italian politics, this is nothing new. But the problem is that now – with the government almost bankrupt and its legitimacy at a historic low – “business as usual” is no longer doable.

Berlusconi’s political credibility is gone – this time in Italy too – sunk by a series of scandals as a result of leaked personal phone conversations (he was caught using a Peruvian SIM card), and lead-nowhere investigations in the circus surrounding his private life.

Whether politicians should or should not be moral examples for the public would be a long discussion.

In today’s “who-are-you-to-lecture-me?” environment, where relativism is the last dogma cherished and championed by progressives all across Europe, it’s hard to accept the overt moralism. Even with Berlusconi and his extraordinarily “colourful” private life, it’s obvious hypocrisy.

All the talk about Berlusconi is about his uninhibited sexual habits. He is berated for the coming and going of young ladies from Palazzo Grazioli or Villa Certosa. There are comments on his penis and on the “ancillas” entertaining him during his long nights.

There are even rumours being circulated that he has referred to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as an: “Unfuckable lard arse”.

But it’s all a cocktail of the Italian version of Victorian morality mixed up with Jacobinism and class warfare from the Left. The ridiculousness of it all is extraordinary.

Policy makers have the obligation to deliver policies in line with the pledges they have made during their political campaigns. Period. Berlusconi should be judged by Italian voters on his (considerable) failures as a policy maker, not on his sexual conduct.

Berlusconi is a marked man anyway. He is 74 and he has had two great opportunities to deliver, failing both times. But what happens to Italian politics, and especially his own party, when he’s gone?

The political cultures that coexist within his party - the People’s Freedom Party - are diverse and sometimes overtly incompatible with one another.  

Former libertarians, former anti-Communist Socialists, former Christian Democrats, former classical liberals, former Communists, former nostalgic National-Socialists (aka “reformed post-Fascists”), but also people that got into politics just after Berlusconi came to power and who have taken their inspiration from him personally.

This “magnificent bunch”, has been living under the same roof and the same leader for almost 20 years. Berlusconi has held them together with charisma and leadership, of course. But also with money.

In any case, power is a far more effective glue than ideological homogeneity itself.

Many within the party think they can avoid the problem of “post-Berlusconism” simply by making a new alliance with the Christian Democrats of Pier Ferdinando Casini -- a centrist that can count on at least five percent of Italian voters. (At this stage the negotiations between the two parties are stuck.)

In the short run, the challenge for the People’s Freedom Party is of course to avoid losing power. Identity comes second. But once Berlusconi’s out, who’s going to lead?

What political-cultural markers will endure inside a party that took more than one third of the Italian electorate in 2008? What about Berlusconi’s pledges for a smaller government, for low taxes, and more individual responsibility?

He didn’t deliver, of course. But will they at least remain as the defining political agenda of “his” party once he’s gone?

Whatever one may think of the man, for most Italians he represented the hope for a better future, the hope for a new cycle of wealth creation, the hope for a less intrusive government.

Yes, he blew it. But the core principles he talked about are at least as relevant today as when he came to power, probably more so.

Berlusconi recently made clear that he won’t be running at the next general election.

His new political protégé and former Minister of Justice, Angelino Alfano, is not even close to being as charismatic as Berlusconi himself.

The likely scenario is that the center-right parties backing today’s government will lose the 2013 elections with the Northern League suffering as well (if, that is, they can even hold together until that date.)

The big question in Italian politics is whether the next generation of leaders can re-invigorate the political idealism that Berlusconi embodied when he entered the field, and put those political ideals into practice. A positive answer to that question would confirm that Italy still has a chance.

Edoardo Ferrazzani is a researcher on foreign policy at the Magna Carta foundation, a conservative Italian think-tank in Rome. He also writes for L', The Commentator's Italian media partner.

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