Italy’s Last Democratic Despot

ROME – Italy has always had a weakness for authoritarian figures. Emperors, kings, princes, or despots have held power one after another since the time of the Roman Empire. The last dominant personality, Silvio Berlusconi, deserted by his supporters under the pressure of global financial markets, is out as prime minister. Political fragmentation, age constraints, and emotional exhaustion have induced him to promise that he will not seek office again.

Berlusconi’s fall marks the end of one of Western democracy’s most controversial recent chapters. History will judge Berlusconi’s actions, but Italians remain divided. All agree that he was never primus inter pares. To his devotees, he was like an enlightened monarch, a man who gave up his successful private businesses to help Italy rebuild from the ashes of Italy’s post-war party system, which had collapsed in a vast corruption scandal that had left almost no part of government unsullied. To his opponents, Berlusconi was akin to a despot, albeit democratically elected, who abused his office by pursuing his commercial interests and protecting himself from legal sanction.

Whatever one’s view, the story of Berlusconi’s rise and fall was written long ago, during the Renaissance, in Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic work The Prince. Berlusconi carefully followed all of Machiavelli’s teachings on how to obtain and maintain power – all but one, and that lapse sealed his fate.

According to Machiavelli, a leading citizen is chosen as prince by the favor of his fellow citizens if his authority is perceived as arising from his ability to defend them from the elite (at that time, the nobility). When Berlusconi started his political adventure in 1994, Italians wanted protection from a ruling class that had been revealed to be utterly corrupt. He presented himself as a self-made billionaire, willing to enter politics for the good of the country. His huge wealth was the collateral for his honesty.