The Berlusconi Paradox

ROME – One storm has passed in Italy. Another, perhaps bigger storm, has yet to begin.

Not for the first time, Italian politics are a landscape of paradoxes and oxymora. Thus, a prime minister who gained massive support from voters only two and a half years ago, won mid-term elections, survived two confidence votes in Parliament, and still enjoys high approval ratings is constantly under pressure.

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Sixteen years have passed since Silvio Berlusconi, a blessing and a curse for the Italian people, made his first foray into the political ring. Berlusconi has been in power for eight of those years, though, as Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of Il Foglio, puts it, the popular perception is that, given his commanding personality, he has ruled the whole time. The Berlusconi era is approaching its twilight, yet his sun is unwilling to set.

Berlusconi, the head of a diversified media empire (television, radio, press, Internet, movies, advertising, and books), decided to establish a political party at a time when he believed that post-communists could win power otherwise. Until 2006, Berlusconi relied on three supporters: Northern League federalists, the post-fascists led by Gianfranco Fini, and the Catholic Union of the Center (UDC), under Pier Ferdinando Casini’s leadership.

In 1994, Fini and Casini were around 40 years old and seen as rising stars of Italian politics. Standing alongside Berlusconi, they did indeed rise, but the tycoon’s star out-shone their own. They felt like powerless minority shareholders.

In 2008, Casini split from Berlusconi. The vote of confidence that just took place finalized Berlusconi’s divorce with the leader of the Italian right, Fini. In both cases, Berlusconi won, but he has paid a heavy price. His government initially had a margin of more than 100 seats in Parliament; now, with Casini and Fini gone, it is down to three.

Berlusconi himself seems captive to his only remaining partner: the Northern League, which is at its popular zenith (though its charismatic leader, Umberto Bossi, is seriously ill). Not surprisingly, the League is calling for new elections in the spring, whereas Berlusconi would prefer to widen the government’s majority by bringing back Casini – a path beset with hurdles and hazards.

After all, Berlusconi’s power, while strong, is also strongly contested. On the international scene, the American diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks highlight American suspicions about Italy, which are not limited to the country’s ties – too close, according to the US State Department – to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to Libya, and to Iran.

What is probably most striking for the Anglo-Saxon cultural paradigm is Berlusconi’s boldness in his use of power – not only when dealing with young and attractive women, but, first and foremost, when advancing his companies’ interests against those of their competitors. The overt government backing provided to Berlusconi’s Mediaset against Rupert Murdoch’s Sky caused a far greater stir internationally than it did in Italy.

Berlusconi regards his “commercial diplomacy” as a formidable defensive weapon, which may help explain why he is not too concerned about how his actions in this area are perceived on the international front. Nor he is overly worried about the domestic scene, since opponents are deeply divided and thus unable to offer an electoral alternative.

Berlusconi’s worries, instead, have more to do with a possible criminal verdict by the Constitutional Court on corruption charges, and a related ban from public office. That is why, if fresh elections are to be held, Berlusconi may well turn them into a personal referendum.

These are the machinations of Italian politics. Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti is a safe pair of hands for the country’s fiscal policy, yet the government has been unable to revive economic growth. Social unrest, on the other hand, has already erupted, with violent protests by students and radical trade-union factions fueling alarm – as have threats and aggression against officials of both trade unions and employers’ associations.

Matters could get worse in 2011, as rising unemployment cuts household consumption. And widening interest-rate spreads on government bonds do not bode well, either, as this will quickly lead to pressure for further spending cuts.

Despite these sources of concern, Italy is a robust country that knows how to deal with economic crisis. But will it be able to deal with a brewing political crisis, too? The answer is likely to be as paradoxical as Italian politics: temporarily definitive.

Read more from our "Italian Ice" Focal Point.