The fact that Italy is about to elect its 59th government since World War II is regarded with almost complete indifference in the United States. Since the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party, Italy has virtually disappeared from the radar screen of American foreign policy. But the potential consequences of tomorrow’s election are far more important than many realize.
The hodgepodge center-right coalition that appears likely to emerge victorious includes a small neo-Fascist party of Mussolini nostalgists and a northern separatist party that routinely inveighs against immigrants, Muslims and homosexuals in phrases that Jörg Haider of Austria would not repeat in public. Paradoxically, the most measured member of the team is the ”post-fascist” party, the National Alliance, which is anxious to appear as respectable as possible.
The real danger for democracy, however, is the coalition’s leader, Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate who, since entering politics in 1994, has rewritten the rules of democratic governance in ways that could have serious repercussions well beyond Italy.
The problem is not Mr. Berlusconi’s ideas — a confusing but unremarkable set of proposals to lower taxes while raising retirement pensions and undertaking an ambitious public works program — but the massive conflict between private and public interests he poses for Italy.
With a business empire estimated at $12 billion, Mr. Berlusconi is probably Italy’s richest man; he is 14th wealthiest in the world, according to Forbes. More important, his key holdings are the three largest private television networks, which have an audience share of 45 percent. As prime minister, he would effectively control the three main public stations, giving him a hold on 90 percent of the television audience. He also owns the Mondadori publishing group, which controls a third of both the magazine and book markets; a championship soccer team; and a leading mutual fund company. He transferred ownership of one major daily newspaper to his brother; another is largely controlled by his wife.
Imagine that President George W. Bush owned CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, the Condé Nast publishing group, Fidelity Investments and the New York Yankees, and you begin to get an idea of the power Mr. Berlusconi wields. Mr. Berlusconi’s television empire is now run by his children and, not coincidentally, he has received four times as much air time as has the center-left candidate, Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome. (The state networks have given each candidate equal time.) Moreover, Mr. Berlusconi’s television networks are more openly partisan than any medium in the United States short of talk radio. The anchorman of one of Mr. Berlusconi’s networks wept openly with joy when Mr. Berlusconi was elected prime minister in 1994 and vowed to leave the country if Mr. Berlusconi failed to win re-election in 1996 — a promise he failed to keep.
The situation is greatly complicated by the fact that Mr. Berlusconi made his fortune during one of the most corrupt times in Italian history. He and his companies came under investigation after Italian magistrates started to investigate crimes of political corruption in the early 1990’s. Various probes have turned up bribes, under-the-table payments to judges and politicians, illegal financing of political parties, off-shore dummy companies and tax evasion schemes. There are at least eight cases still open against Mr. Berlusconi.
Mr. Berlusconi’s media empire has succeeded, in part, in portraying the Italian investigating magistrates as part of a Communist-inspired plot to destroy him politically. And his influence on the state media — his own and allied parties partly administer the state networks, which run on a partisan spoils system — has meant that he has never been forced to answer rigorous questioning on the investigations. (Italy’s justice system is in genuine need of reform, but its rules should not be rewritten by one of its leading defendants, who has proposed placing prosecutors under executive control and eliminating crimes like false accounting. Mr. Berlusconi is himself under investigation for false accounting.)
Examining the charges against Mr. Berlusconi, The Economist concluded recently that he was ”not fit to lead the government of any country, least of all one of the world’s richest democracies.”
Many Italians had hoped that their country’s integration into Europe would reduce some of its anomalies. There is evidence that just the opposite is happening: Mr. Berlusconi is succeeding in exporting his conflicts of interest to Europe. He has major business alliances in Germany (with media giant Leo Kirch) and Spain, in both cases with ambitions to build pan-European companies large enough to counter American rivals in film and television production. Spanish prosecutors have uncovered evidence suggesting that Mr. Berlusconi used a series of front companies to gain more than his legal limit of a 25 percent share of Tele 5, a leading Spanish broadcaster, and evaded tens of millions of dollars in taxes.
These Spanish investigators have not been able to go further because Mr. Berlusconi enjoys immunity as a member of the European parliament — and the Spanish government, allied politically with Mr. Berlusconi, has failed, for months, to forward prosecutors’ request for a waiver of immunity on to Brussels.
The explosive mixture of unlimited money, media control and political power is a growing issue worldwide. Mr. Berlusconi has simply been the boldest figure in pushing the equation to its limits in a country with weak public institutions and little tradition of putting aside partisan differences for a larger good.
Members of the Bush administration acted commendably in selling off stock and private business holdings in order to remove any doubts about the propriety of their governance. Mr. Berlusconi claims he is in favor of anything American and announced this week that as prime minister he would hope to be America’s ”biggest friend and ally in Europe.” So perhaps he might be persuaded that strict norms against mixing private and public power, like those widely accepted in the United States, might be best also for Italy. He has resolved to solve the conflict-of-interest problem in his first 100 days of office, but says in the same breath that it is ”a false problem.” He needs to be persuaded, should he be elected, that anything short of total divestment of all private holdings — to a third party unconnected to him or his family — places him outside the accepted norms of modern democracy.
– May 12, 2001
Published at The New York Times