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INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS -
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A Berlusconi victory would be as damaging as was Bush's

Posted in the database on Tuesday, February 07th, 2006 @ 14:02:46 MST (600 views)
by Tristram Hunt    The Guardian  

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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 office.

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 East Jerusalem.

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 plutocrats.

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 be fatal.

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.

· Email: tristramhunt@btopenworld.com



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