Why Berlusconi beat the ‘Italian Obama’

What a third term for the ‘Jesus Christ’ of Italian politics reveals about democracy, corruption and the cult of personality.

Dominic Standish

Topics World

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Silvio Berlusconi is Italy’s new prime minister – again – after winning a General Election against Walter Veltroni, who modelled himself on the US Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama. The election result is revealing for a number of reasons. First because it shows that Italian voters are so disillusioned by more than a decade of anti-corruption witch-hunting that they are willing to return to office the man who was described as the most corrupt of them all: Berlusconi. And second because it highlights the perils of personality politics, which should be a lesson to politicians across the Western world.

The results from the General Election on 13 and 14 April 2008 gave Berlusconi a majority in both the Lower and Upper (Senate) Houses of Parliament. Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party (PDL) won 272 seats in the Lower House compared with 211 for Veltroni’s Democratic Party (PD); at the time of writing, 12 seats are still to be assigned from foreign constituencies. In the Senate, the PDL won 141 seats while the PD won 116. These results mean Berlusconi holds a decisive majority in both Houses of Parliament – a rarity in Italian politics in the decades after the Second World War. Berlusconi will now enjoy a third term as prime minister, having previously held the position in 1994-1995 and in 2001-2006.

In an attempt to crush the challenge from Berlusconi, Veltroni adopted Barack Obama’s campaign slogan ‘Si puo fare!’ (‘Yes we can!’). Obama and Veltroni are friends, and Veltroni wrote the introduction for the Italian edition of Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope. Veltroni’s Democratic Party was formed last year by merging the two largest centre-left parties, and it explicitly and self-consciously adopted the same name as Obama’s party. Hollywood star George Clooney campaigned for Veltroni in the week before the election; he compared him to Obama, arguing that Veltroni ‘also appeals to the young, he speaks of hope and a clean environment, rare in Italian politics’. During the election campaign, Veltroni borrowed from the American electoral repertoire and went on an environmentally-friendly bus tour of Italian constituencies. In contrast, Berlusconi flew around Italy, from one election rally to another, in his private jet. The stage was set for a battle between the ageing representative of old Italian politics, business and alleged corruption, Berlusconi (who is 72 years old), and the youngish candidate modelled almost exactly on Obama, Veltroni.

Yet Veltroni’s attempt to replicate ‘Obama-mania’ failed to win over sufficient numbers of Italian voters (1). As a 1970s communist activist and a former mayor of Rome, 52-year-old Veltroni struggled to present himself as a fresh personality for Italian politics. ‘Obama is innovative, unifying and post-ideological’, said the Obama-wannabe Veltroni (2). However, as Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times astutely observed: ‘In his post-ideological pragmatism and emphasis on non-confrontational politics, some voters wonder what [Veltroni] really stands for, especially when it comes to dealing with an increasingly intrusive Catholic Church.’ For many observers, Veltroni’s adoption of Obama slogans looked like a cheap cover for the fact that he had run out of inspiring ideas for the future of Italy.

As I reported on spiked during the election campaign, Veltroni and his Democratic Party backed off from engaging with the issue of abortion when it became a prominent issue (3). In fact, when the last government fell, in January/February this year, Veltroni argued against holding an election before a new electoral law could be introduced, such was his uncertainty about the kind of programme and vision he might put forward. In the end, he opted to copy, to an almost embarrassing degree, the electioneering of Obama (4). Nevertheless, Veltroni’s seemingly modern campaign, based on personality rather than politics, impressed outside observers. The UK Independent said of his defeat: ‘The left can gain some cheer from the perfectly respectable showing of Walter Veltroni and his Democratic Party. Indeed, the speed and energy with which the former mayor of Rome has reversed the slide in the fortunes of the left has been very credible.’ (5)

This statement is strange, especially when one considers that, in the latest election, Italy’s left Socialist Party has vanished from parliament for the first time since 1892, along with the Communists, whose hammer and sickle has been a parliamentary feature since 1921. Moreover, Veltroni’s campaign simply did not impress enough Italian voters.

In contrast, Berlusconi demonstrated that he still has some appeal in a country where political correctness is not as all-pervasive as it is in the US and some Western European countries. Berlusconi famously compared a German politician to a Nazi camp guard, and he declared shortly after 9/11 that Western civilisation is superior to Islam. During the latest election campaign, he proposed mental health tests for prosecutors who have attempted to convict him on corruption charges, stated that right-wing women are sexier than left-wing ones, and hailed a Mafioso who looked after his villa in the 1970s as a ‘hero’ for refusing to talk to police. He even endorsed bending the rules against high taxation rates. ‘There is a rule that says if a State asks a third of what you earn, taxation is at the right level. But if it asks you to pay 50-60 per cent, as happens for companies, one feels justified to do a bit of evading’, he said (6). Bear in mind that Berlusconi has a vast business empire and is one of Italy’s richest men.

European liberal newspapers have reacted with dismay and even disgust to the re-election of Berlusconi. They have trotted out his un-PC comments on everything from women to money to corruption and asked why on earth Italian voters installed him in power for a third time (7). Yet the fact is that many Italians find Berlusconi’s roguish charm and rule-bending attractive, especially following the taxation policies of the previous administration led by the centre-left. Some do not consider Berlusconi to be their saviour but they do see him as preferable to his dull, bean-counting, rule-following predecessor, Romano Prodi, who cut his teeth in that regulation-obsessed and slothful institution, the European Commission. Most political commentators agree that Berlusconi benefited from a reaction against the economic austerity and political disarray of the previous government, which Veltroni was closely associated with.

More fundamentally, the return of Berlusconi to power can be seen as a judgement on the Italian left’s and the Italian courts’ incessant witch-hunting of corrupt politicians in recent years. From the ‘clean hands’ campaign of 1992-1994 to the continual attempts to charge Berlusconi with corruption, Italian magistrates, backed up by extraordinary and undemocratic powers of investigation and detention, have sought to ‘cleanse’ Italian politics by dealing with allegedly corrupt political leaders and officials. Frequently they were backed by left-wing parties and radicals, who had more faith in a small group of magistrates than they did in the Italian masses.

This witch-hunting of corrupt politicians was born out of left frustration with mass politics and it was driven by a desire to circumvent the electoral process and use the courts to oust unattractive right-leaning politicians. That a majority of voters supported Berlusconi in the latest election, even after he joked about those who want to prosecute him being mentally ill, suggests that Italians are sick and tired of the anti-political obsession with corruption. Many Italians probably have no illusions in Berlusconi, but their vote for him can be seen as a vote against the cynical legalistic left and for a return to politics, however messy, complicated and strange politics might sometimes be.

And yet, Berlusconi’s persona – his outspokenness and black humour – became an influential factor in the election, too, because, fundamentally, there is not a great deal of policy difference between him and Veltroni or between the other parties. Consider the issue of immigration. The chauvinistic party the Northern League (NL) almost doubled its vote in the latest election, after campaigning mainly on an anti-immigration platform. With the NL now the third largest party in the new parliament, Berlusconi is likely to become dependent on its support for key legislation. The UK’s Independent and Guardian reacted with horror at the prospect of such an awful party holding the balance of power in Italy, especially given that the Refounded Communists and Green Party failed to gain any seats for their rainbow coalition (8).

Yet Berlusconi himself had a strong anti-immigrant track record during his previous two administrations – and Veltroni evicted immigrants to camps outside of Rome when he was mayor of the city. He also pressed the last government to approve a decree allowing Italy to expel immigrants who arrived from other member states of the European Union. With an anti-immigrant consensus between the leading political figures, it is unsurprising that the most vociferously racist party – the Northern League – benefited, while the PD and PDL elevated personality over a debate about ‘differences’ in policy.

Like Veltroni, Berlusconi was also guilty of courting personality politics. After one of his fans created a campaign song titled ‘Thank goodness for Silvio!’, he endorsed it. ‘It’s absolutely part of personality cult politics and so should not be done, but the youth wanted it, and it can bring joy’, he said. Not to be outdone, supporters of Veltroni’s Democratic Party (PD) created their own campaign anthem titled ‘I’m PD’, sung to the tune of the Village People’s hit ‘YMCA’.

Although Berlusconi’s cultivation of personality politics was more successful than Veltroni’s Obama ripoff act, neither leader could mask the pervasive sense of stasis in Italian politics. The electorate was faced with two ageing representatives of Italy’s political old guard attempting to reinvent themselves as dynamic personalities. In a country with traditionally high voter participation rates, the turnout for this General Election fell by 3.5 per cent compared with the election in 2006. Berlusconi emphasised that there will be no great policy innovations in his new Italy. ‘We do not carry out or promise miracles’, warned his election manifesto, which is quite surprising since he has previously compared himself to Jesus Christ.

Dr Dominic Standish is an adjunct Professor for the University of Kansas (USA) at their CIMBA site in Asolo, Italy. You can email him {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked:

Dominc Standish took a critical view of Italy’s pantomime politics and criticised the European press coverage of Italy’s 2001 elections. He also explained why we should save Venice. Elsewhere Frank Furedi welcomed the reawakening of European democracy but also asked whether we were facing the political end of Europe. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

(1) See Getting to grips with Obama-mania, by Sean Collins, 8 January 2008

(2) Walter Veltroni, Financial Times, 27 March 2008

(3) See Playing politics with abortion, by Dominic Standish, 22 February 2008

(4) See Pantomime politics, Italian-style, by Dominic Standish, 30 January 2008

(5) An unwelcome return, Independent, 15 April 2008

(6) Berlusconi: high taxes justify evasion, AGI News Agency, 3 April 2008

(7) Italy: Third time unlucky, Guardian, 12 April 2008

(8) Extreme party of chauvinism holds the key, Independent, 15 April 2008 ; Politics of fear: Northern League may become thorn in side of Berlusconi, Guardian, 9 April 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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