Is the Berlusconi era drawing to a close?

Posted on: June 22, 2011

Since 1994, Silvio Berlusconi has been at the heart of Italian political and media life. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that he has left an indelible mark on modern Italian society. He has been Prime Minister for ten years which is itself a remarkable feat in post-war Italy. From television to soccer to publishing, it is hard to escape the shadow of il Cavaliere.

When he entered politics in 1994 and formed Forza Italia, he did so at a time when the old political order known as la prima repubblica had crumbled under the Tangentopoli scandal. Berlusconi was seen by many as an antidote who could tame Italy’s notorious bureaucracy and usher in an era of liberalizing economic reforms which would enable the country to prosper and solve some long standing problems like the mezzogiorno. Supporters saw Berlusconi as a self-made man who rose from the Italian middle class to become one of the richest men on the planet. Maybe his magic could rub off on the rest of the country?

Unfortunately, Italy’s economy has been stagnant for much of the past decade. The country is growing poorer and older. Power rests with a gerontocracy seen to be out of touch. Many young people are leaving Italy because they cannot get permanent jobs at home unless they are politically connected. They are referred to as the generation of i precari.

Back to Berlusconi. Rather than tackling Italy’s chronic economic and social problems, many would argue that his government has been pre-occupied with fighting the judiciary to keep the boss out of court and out of jail. Berlusconi is presently on trial for bribery, false accounting and paying a minor for sex and then using his office to try and cover it up. At the recent G8 summit in France, Berlusconi’s frustrations spilled over when he bent the ear of a visibly embarrassed Barack Obama complaining that Italy was a dictatorship run by left wing judges.

Recently, Berlusconi has had two major setbacks which put his hold on power into serious question. First, his party, Popolo della Liberta` (PDL) and his coalition ally, the Northern League, were trounced in local elections seen as a referendum on Berlusconi’s leadership. The center-right even lost the mayoralty election in Milan which is Berlusconi’s home town.

The second setback was the referenda in which Italians voted to abrogate four laws dealing with nuclear power, the privatization of water and a law giving Berlusconi partial immunity from prosecution. A quorum of 50% plus one in voter turnout was met which had not happened in a referendum since 1995. The laws which were abrogated had all been passed by Berlusconi’s government.

Berlusconi’s parliamentary mandate runs out in 2013. It is doubtful whether or not he will survive that long. Many in the Northern League want to split with PDL which they see as a sinking ship which could take them down as well. Recent polls show that the center left parties would win a majority if Italians were to vote in a national election at this time.

Berlusconi has demonstrated time and again that he is a fighter, never one to give up, no matter the odds against him. He is however 74 years old and the combined strain of his legal problems, the break-up of his second marriage and the constant media attention into his colourful private life have all taken a toll. All of this, coupled with a growing sense that a majority of Italians have finally had enough of Silvio Berlusconi, may be enough for him to leave the stage that he has so dominated for the past seventeen years.

Franco Ciarlo