By GABRIEL HERSHMAN
SILVIO BERLUSCONI’S five-year reign as Italian Prime Minister has ended, following a wafer thin defeat at the hands of Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition. But, at the time of writing, Berlusconi has refused to concede defeat and is still contesting the result.
Berlusconi, a media magnate and Italy’s richest man – worth an estimated 12 billion dollars – fought a vulgar and belligerent campaign, perhaps hoping to galvanise the electorate. In this, at least, he succeeded, triggering an 83 per cent turnout, much higher than in other western democracies.
Berlusconi’s rumbustious behaviour during the campaign entertained the press and public alike. He stormed out of a (rare) television interview, after grabbing his interviewer by the lapels and accusing her of being “a leftie”. He compared himself to Napoleon and Jesus Christ (a step too far for the Vatican!), and described his opponents as Communists who worshipped Pol Pot and Stalin.
Proclaiming himself as a philanthropist who had helped the world’s poor, his campaign material also featured supposed celebrity endorsement from Bono, a pop superstar and humanitarian activist. But this backfired when Bono intervened to say he felt “exploited” by the move and called into question Berlusconi’s commitment to helping the Third World.
A key coalition partner also damaged Berlusconi’s reputation during the election. One of his ministers, Roberto Calderoli, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, caused a sensation when he ripped open his T-shirt to reveal one of the offensive, anti-Islamic cartoons that first appeared in a Danish newspaper. The incident led to riots in Libya that left 16 people dead, prompting Berlusconi to dismiss Calderoli.
Populism used as a tool
Berlusconi has always used populism to divert voters’ dissatisfaction with the sluggish performance of the economy. Like Portugal, Italy had relied on low wages to be competitive. A large producer of textiles, ceramics and furniture, Italy had found itself increasingly undercut by the rising economies of the Far East. But it was not just the economy that proved disappointing – Berlusconi’s support for the war on Iraq was also deeply unpopular with most Italians who thought he was much too close to Bush.
Berlusconi was elected because he was a phenomenally successful entrepreneur, who, people hoped, could replicate his personal success for Italy as a whole. When the panacea failed, Berlusconi (the owner of FC Milan) resorted to vulgar populism to boost his popularity, parading his credentials as a football-mad, virile, man of the people.
Berlusconi’s increasingly weird comments became his stock in trade. Commentators often mistook this behaviour for ‘gaffes’. But many politicians are deliberately provocative, believing that ordinary voters prefer politically incorrect spontaneity to the carefully chosen statements of boring political insiders.
There’s still a lot of truth to the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity”. Many politicians have used this tactic to varying degrees of success, including the former Prime Ministers of Portugal and Australia, Pedro Santana Lopes and Bob Hawke, and, judging by his recent diatribes, London Mayor, Ken Livingstone.
But it is not only Berlusconi’s pronouncements that have triggered scrutiny. He has also fought off repeated claims of corruption since he formed his Forza Italia party in 1994. His vast business empire spans advertising, insurance, food and construction. But it was his stranglehold over the media that proved most controversial. Berlusconi’s investment company controls the country’s three biggest private television stations: Canale Cinque, Italia Uno and Rette Quattro. Two of the three publicly run stations, Rai Uno and Rai Due, are now also run by his supporters because the government of the day usually controls them.
Opponents have complained that an Italian voter cannot escape blanket coverage favourable to Berlusconi. They say his control of the media extends beyond the news agenda and that comedians who lampooned him have never appeared on television again. Certainly, Berlusconi far outspent Prodi during the campaign, raising concerns about equitable media coverage and campaigning.
Yet, despite his billions, Berlusconi’s gamble failed. Although the election failed to produce the clear-cut outcome the country needed, Prodi’s slim victory will, at least, bring to an end the era of flamboyant personality politics.