Florence, Asharq Al-Awsat—Commentators worldwide have been astounded by Silvio Berlusconi’s political survival skills. Many ask how is it possible that the center-right coalition, headed by a man marred by links to the mafia, corruption and prostitution scandals, and who has left Italy’s economy and international reputation in tatters, was able to gather a whopping 30 percent of the national consensus. It was not a triumph for Mr. Berlusconi. He overall lost the elections and his own party collected 22 percent of the vote, substantially less than in the previous 2008 electoral round. Yet there is still a sizable chunk of the Italian electorate that clings to him and his coalition. Why?
First, Mr. Berlusconi is a rich entrepreneur who has become, after twenty years at the helm of Italian politics, the most powerful man in Italy. Berlusconi’s interests extend across vast areas of the state, the economy and civil society. He owns three of the seven TV channels freely available to the public. During his premierships Berlusconi also has had a say over another three state controlled TV channels, making him a near-monopolist of the airwaves. He controls the largest publishing agency in Italy and has interests in most of the country’s right wing press. His daily and weekly magazines publish flattering articles and photos about him and denigrating ones of his opponents. He also owns a major Italian bank. Over the decades, huge swaths of political, economic, and cultural elites in Italy have benefitted directly or indirectly from Berlusconi’s support and are deeply indebted to his patronage.
Yet, Berlusconi is not only about the power of interests. After more than twenty years in the political limelight he has also become an ideology, or better, a way of life. That is what Italians call Berlusconismo. The classical Romans used to say, give the masses panem et circenses (bread and games) and they’ll be happy. That’s what much of Berlusconismo—a modern-day form of populism—is about.
On the one hand, Berlusconi regularly promises impossible tax cuts and, once in office, amply closes a blind eye on tax-evaders (a huge portion of the Italian population), provides little economic oversight and regulation, and dishes out state largess to his cronies. The fulfillment of private short-term interests are relentlessly encouraged over the long-term collective good of the country.
On the other hand, Berlusconi entertains Italians with his jokes, parties (infamously known as Bunga Bunga), and TV stations beaming the latest American movies, multi-million euro quizzes and scantily dressed women. Berlusconi makes football fans dream with the wonders of AC Milan (which he owns) and dazzles the public with his carefully orchestrated self-made man image. Much of his appeal also comes from an anti-establishment narrative and his ability to connect directly to what many see as the guttural instincts of Italian people.
Having become an ideology, Berlusconi has been able to reorient political life around his persona and away from old distinctions between right and left, or conservatives and progressives. As a result, Italian society over the past twenty years has been sharply divided between Berlusconisti and anti-Berlusconisti. The various left-leaning coalitions that have formed over the years have gelled together not because they shared a common vision Italy’s future, but rather because they shared a common antipathy for Berlusconi. Many new newspapers, TV programs, and political parties, have prospered by explicitly framing their political activism exclusively in terms of a blind anti-Berlusconismo.
Italy’s major left of center party, the Partito Democratico (PD) struggles to reform and modernize. Matteo Renzi, a young contender to the PD’s leadership during the pre-electoral primary season vigorously campaigned on a sort of Blairite New Labor platform. Renzi’s hope was to make his party more appealing to moderate, independent and disaffected former Berlusconi voters. His bid for the leadership failed, delegitimized by the core of the left’s establishment as being too centrist and too Berlusconista.
The ultimate paradox of the anti-Berlusconismo that grips the Italian left is that it needs and depends on Berlusconi himself to thrive. When Berlusconi’s star does not shine as bright (as was clear in the last elections and the ones he lost in 1996 and 2006), his enemies lose cohesion and sparkle. This leaves us where we are today. Indeed, even if Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition did not lose as considerably as expected in Italy’s February election, neither did his opponents on the left win as handsomely as many imagined they would.
The true winner of Italy’s election was actually Beppe Grillo. Grillo is a wealthy and charismatic comedian turned politician, somewhat mirroring Berlusconi the wealthy charismatic politician turned buffoon. His political movement emerged from nowhere to win over 25 percent of the vote, becoming the real power broker of Italian politics today. He achieved this not by attacking directly the failed policies of Berlusconi, but rather by opposing both the Berlusconismo of the right and the anti-Berlusconismo of the left. Grillo presented himself as the man-of-the-people against the established powers and worldviews of the past 20 years. Berlusconismo seems to be on the way out, being replaced not by something against it, but by something different – what many increasingly call Grillismo. But the Grillo phenomenon and Grillismo are another story. Or maybe not.