The Italian leader is not fit to hold high office, and activists worldwide
should join to ensure his election defeat
In typically vulgar style, Silvio Berlusconi committed himself last
week to sexual abstinence until the Italian general election on April 9. Unfortunately,
Mrs Berlusconi's well-earned break promises to come at the expense of European
politics. For a determined Berlusconi could well win himself another term in
Some 15 months ago the global progressive community headed to America in a forlorn
attempt to unseat President Bush. From Europe, Canada and Asia thousands of
angry activists joined the Democrat campaign. Even the Guardian got in on the
act by targeting the voters of Clark County, Ohio. Now, with greater effort,
the same campaigning enthusiasm needs to be directed towards Italy - as with
the US elections, as much for our sakes as for theirs.
In the run-up to the 2001 Italian poll, the Economist listed a litany of charges
Berlusconi was under investigation for. Famously, the normally reserved magazine
concluded he was "not fit to lead the government of any country, least of
all one of the world's richest democracies". Although Berlusconi responded
with a libel claim, which is so far unresolved, his record in office has only
served to confirm their verdict.
Above all there has been the systematic abuse of the legislature for his own ends.
Deploying his substantial majority in parliament, in 2003 he altered the law to
give high-ranking state officials (such as the prime minister) legal exemptions.
More recently, he has further attempted to cow prosecuting authorities with an
attack on judicial independence. The usually pliant President Ciampi called the
legislation "blatantly unconstitutional".
Berlusconi's serial misuse of the political system ranges from the parochial
to the constitutional. He overhauled the planning system to cover up the environmental
damage his gargantuan villa had inflicted on the Sardinian coastline. And six
months before the April poll he introduced a wide-ranging series of electoral
reforms. These would have the effect of denying the opposition an outright victory
as well as returning Italy to the worst years of PR instability.
Yet he has always been more than just prime minister. In addition to holding
executive power, he is a publisher, newspaper proprietor, football magnate,
property developer, advertiser and, above all, television mogul.
Despite all the sweet talk before 2001 of divesting himself of conflicting
interests, Berlusconi has tightened his control over the Italian media. Satirists
have been driven off the airwaves, while his 90% control of television channels
eliminates any pretence of political balance. In one 15-day period last month,
Berlusconi enjoyed three hours and 16 minutes of airtime compared with his rival
Romano Prodi's eight minutes.
Yet by far the most distasteful element of Berlusconi's governance is his sotto
voce sympathy for neo-fascism. Among numerous gaffes during the EU presidency,
perhaps the most startling was his comparison of a critical German MEP to a
Nazi guard. It was all the stranger since, back in Italy, Berlusconi enthusiastically
embraces the far right.
The neo-fascist National Alliance is a core component of his electoral coalition
with its distasteful leader, Gianfranco Fini, serving as foreign minister. As
a result, the government has recently announced plans to accord some of Italy's
worst wartime fascist combatants the same honour as resistance fighters. Then
there are the knowing political utterances that give a nod to the neo-fascist
constituency - such as Berlusconi's description of footballer Paolo di Canio
as "un bravo ragazzo" following his fascist salute to Lazio fans.
Should any of this concern us? Berlusconi's government might be unattractive,
yet it is hardly likely to dictate our own politics in the same way as the American
presidency. True. But this would be to ignore the growing geo-political influence
of Italy, which, with Berlusconi at its helm, has rarely been deployed for the
good. Leaving aside his ardour for neoconservative military adventurism and
belief that western civilisation is "superior to Islam", Berlusconi's
administration has serially hampered the EU's diplomatic agenda - not least
in regard to human rights abuses in Chechnya and illegal Israeli actions in
So the left should be bold about intervening in this election: stretching back
to the 19th century, liberal internationalism has long been the purview of European
progressives. Presidents and prime ministers should not be surprised that with
quickening economic and cultural globalisation there follows a desire for global
political activism. More advantageously, in terms of British politics, unseating
Berlusconi would also mean removing from temptation one of the more troubling
characteristics of our own prime minister - his personal predilection for rightwing
However, April 2006 is already looking like November 2004. While Berlusconi
might remain marginally behind in the polls, Prodi is starting to resemble John
Kerry. His electoral coalition is mired in a banking fraud, and his capacity
for indecision is assuming damaging proportions. When this is combined with
Berlusconi's media manipulations and electoral gerrymandering, the results could
British activists have a habit of obsessing over the minutiae of American politics.
But the prospect of another Berlusconi government must focus attention on the
vital importance of European politics. Committed progressives need to get involved
now, and allow Mr and Mrs Berlusconi a return to full married life.
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