Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is now 77 years old, was expelled from the Italian Senate last month in connection with a four-year prison sentence related to his media empire, Mediaset, which was found guilty of systemic tax fraud. He will have to choose between house arrest and one year of community service. The expulsion marks the demise of the politician who has dominated Italian politics for two decades. Or does it?
For a man who has been involved in thirty-three court cases and has several more pending—with charges ranging from bribing politicians to paying for sex with underage prostitutes—he can count himself lucky. Until now, he seemed immune to criminal convictions, thanks to statutes of limitations and laws likely designed to protect him.
He emerged as a political figure in the early 1990s, in the midst of the famous “Mani Pulite” corruption investigation that spelled the end of the parties that had dominated post-war Italian politics—the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Communists. This self-made man who had gone from singing on tourist cruise ships to media magnate, and whose young daughter thought he devoted his time to fixing TV sets, promised he would change jobs in order to “fix Italy.” As the head of the center-right party Forza Italia, he purported to believe in small government, the rule of law, and individual freedom. His message soon drew support among a population tired of the corporatist political establishment.
A closer look at Berlusconi should have told everyone that he was an unlikely nemesis of the establishment. He owed his rise in business to Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi, who granted him exclusive TV licenses in exchange for political funding—and who ended his days in Tunisia, where he fled in order to avoid prison. Berlusconi united the political right and went on to become prime minister, a position he held three times in the past two decades and which he used only occasionally to push a small-government agenda. Most of his time seemed to be spent protecting his interests, erasing the line that separates business and politics, and making rude comments about other heads of state.
He became the scourge of the left-leaning remnants of the old parties, which united under successive banners, from L’Ulivo to the Democratic Party. The result was the mess in which Italy finds itself these days, with a never-ending recession (the economy will contract by 1.8 percent this year) and a government debt amounting to about 130 percent of gross domestic product. Total debt, which includes household and corporate leverage, is the equivalent of more than three times the size of the economy. No wonder joblessness stands at 12 percent and youth unemployment has reached a stupefying 41 percent.
Predictably, cynicism became pervasive among the electorate. In recent parliamentary elections the voters gave significant support to a populist movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo. After several weeks of negotiations and uncertainty, the Democratic Party, which had scraped a narrow win, was able to form a government only after Berlusconi decided the left's dependency on his votes would guarantee his legal protection. He was mistaken: the court cases continued to haunt him. He decided to pull his five ministers from the left-right government coalition, but dozens of his Congressmen and women, led by his erstwhile dauphin Angelino Alfano, betrayed him and kept current prime minister Enrico Letta in power in a vote of confidence. A few weeks later, the Senate expelled Berlusconi in keeping with a law that he himself had once supported.
By reasonable standards, this should spell the end of Berlusconi and the beginning of a profound transformation of the center-right. The new center-right will strive to exploit the weakness and division of the Democratic Party while guarding against the threat that Grillo's movement, whose prestige is growing again, poses for the next election, to be held probably in 2015. But Berlusconi, who remains popular among many Italians, has vowed to fight. He may lack the authority and the immunity, but he has the charisma, the money, and the motivation to keep wrecking the chances that the center-right will cleanse itself of his leadership and of the mindset he has come to personify.
Until Italy finds a way to evolve beyond Berlusconi and his way of doing things, that wonderful country's politics will indeed be a comedian's stage.
Alvaro Vargas LLosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His latest book is “Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Ricardo Stuckert, Agencia Brasil. CC BY 2.0.