ROME – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s political and sexual exploits make headlines around the world, and not just in the tabloid press. These stories would be no more than funny – which they are certainly are – if they were not so damaging to Italy and revelatory of the country’s immobile politics.
For, despite the rampant scandals, “national Silvio” (“Il Silvio Nazionale”) remains by far Italy’s most popular and successful politician (though his approval ratings have now dipped below the 50% mark in opinion polls for the first time since his second return to the premiership in 2008).
Part of the reason for Berlusconi’s longevity despite his many stumbles is cultural. As in other Latin or Mediterranean countries with a strong Catholic tradition, Italian society long ago learned to accept serenely a life of duplicity: on the one hand, a strong attachment to church and family values, and on the other a second life – often lived in plain sight – composed of mistresses and other “dubious” connections.
Today’s Italian Catholic political leaders often embrace such a lifestyle. In recent years, aside from Berlusconi himself, other divorcés like Centrist Catholic Party Leader Pier Ferdinando Casini and Parliament Speaker Gianfranco Fini could easily deliver passionate speeches in the morning on the importance of the traditional family unit and the sacredness of marriage, attend a touching audience with the Pope in the afternoon, and then rush off in the evening to their unmarried partners and mothers of their latest offspring.