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Making Way for Berlusconi

The recent Italian elections were not just a clear triumph for the center-right coalition of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. They were also a major defeat for the center-left parties that have governed the country since their victory in 1996.

In one sense, their defeat bears some resemblance to Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush last November: based on the economic situation alone, the center-left should have had strong advantages. The Italian economy is growing at 2.9 percent a year and the country added more than a million jobs during the last five years—accomplishing what Berlusconi promised but failed to do when he was elected in 1994. (He lasted in office for only seven months, but the country lost about 300,000 jobs during that period.) Inflation has dropped to 3 percent. Interest rates have been cut nearly in half and the stock market has nearly doubled in value. Against the predictions of many, Italy met the economic criteria of the Maastricht Treaty for full integration into the European Union.

What, then, went wrong? The answer, to some on the left, is the overwhelming power of Berlusconi’s media and economic empire. But this is an insufficient part of the explanation. It is true that Berlusconi’s use of television and money is unprecedented in the history of modern democracy. He combines telegenic charm with a brilliant sense of political theater, managing to give the impression that he is both a man of the people and a political messiah. When he entered politics in 1994, he simultaneously addressed the nation on all three of his national networks as if he were already president, and he has made shameless use of them ever since. His three stations have a 42 percent share of the TV audience, and with Italy’s three state networks under his control, he will soon have power over 90 percent of the country’s television transmissions.

Berlusconi does not hesitate to make complaints to the anchormen of his news networks or issue orders about the nightly news; his stations gave him four times more airtime than they did the center-left candidate, Francesco Rutelli. The state broadcasting company, RAI, was comparatively neutral and gave the two roughly equal time. Still, Berlusconi was able to use one of his favorite state programs to stage the signing of his “contract with the Italian people”—a list of promises—on national TV. The program showed Berlusconi sitting at a cherrywood desk as if the state TV studio were his office (see photo on this page). No one asked him any difficult questions.

But Berlusconi had virtually all of the same advantages in 1996, when the center-left managed to win. Why did the governing parties squander their favorable position this time? One reason is that they were unwilling to address the issues of Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest and his dominance of television and other mass media, of which they now justly complain. When Romano Prodi became prime minister in the spring of 1996, the center-left coalition he led—backed by the powerful former Communist leader Massimo D’Alema—could have passed a conflict-of-interest law which applied generally and was not merely directed at Berlusconi. The members of the government coalition could have abolished a great many questionable practices, by which for example university professors can pick up a second salary by serving perfunctorily in parliament. If the coalition members had established high ethical standards for themselves as well as the center-right, they might have forced Berlusconi to choose between running his vast business empire and holding public office. They did none of these things.

Similarly, the center-left did not try to reform the state broadcasting system or force Berlusconi to give up his TV monopoly. Instead, Prodi, D’Alema, and their center-left allies did just as their predecessors had done. They used the old patronage system to place their own people in key positions and to exert as much influence behind the scenes as possible. Instead of changing the rules, they tried to out-Berlusconi Berlusconi, a game which they were bound to lose.

 

RAI is a large, staid, cautious institution, in which statements by politicians from the different parties were once allotted time precisely, even with the use of a stopwatch, according to their share of representation in parliament. The vestiges of this system are still in place. The parliament has an “RAI oversight committee,” whose center-right members complain at the least deviation from the rules into partiality. The result is that during the seven years since Berlusconi entered politics there has not been a single investigative report on Italian public TV into the numerous charges of corruption in Berlusconi’s Mediaset financial empire.

Berlusconi’s own networks have no such reservations about appearing partisan. In 1994, when one of his family’s newspapers failed to endorse him, he stormed into the newsroom and told the journalists that it was time to put down the “rapier” and take up the “machine gun” against his enemies. The attempts by the center-left to use the RAI to counter Berlusconi’s Mediaset was like pitting a house cat against a doberman. They lowered the center-left to the same moral plane as Berlusconi and made the Italian public more cynical than ever about the commingling of media and politics.

The center-left coalition might have made a serious effort to privatize one of RAI’s three networks, and thus would have been in a stronger position to demand the breakup of Berlusconi’s monopoly of private broadcasting. By giving up some of the government’s control of television, it could have shown it was serious about creating the basis for genuine pluralism. Instead, many among the center-left, reflecting the deep-rooted attitudes of postwar Italian politics, insisted until only about a year ago that antimonopoly and conflict-of-interest laws were “abstractions” introduced into Italian politics by moralistic, uncomprehending foreigners. Berlusconi, they claimed, was “politically finished” after his defeat in 1996. Therefore, the problem of his monopoly over the mass media should take a back seat to more pressing political issues.

Much of this disastrous policy must be attributed to Massimo D’Alema, the secretary of the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left), the chief heir of the old Italian Communist Party and the principal member of the center-left coalition. Although Romano Prodi, a professional economist and centrist, was prime minister until 1998, D’Alema appeared to dominate the Italian political scene. He had brilliantly put together a broad coalition that extended from moderate conservatives to neo-Communists. Although D’Alema understood the importance of having a non-Communist moderate as the head of the government, he was also impatient to exercise real power.

 

One of D’Alema’s principal ambitions was to pass a new electoral law that would complete Italy’s transition from a proportional system to a winner-take-all system. This would reduce the number of parties and the destabilizing effect of multiparty coalitions. Once this law was passed, D’Alema hoped to call for new elections and emerge as the head of a broad left government like Britain’s Labour Party or France’s Socialist Party. Italy would then, he argued, become a normal country. To accomplish this aim, D’Alema was willing to make concessions on the issues that meant the most to Berlusconi. He was allowed to keep his media empire intact, and changes were made in the Italian penal code that reined in state prosecutors who were trying to send Berlusconi to jail on charges of bribery, tax evasion, and illegal party financing.

D’Alema proposed a bipartisan commission to work out the details of a new election law and he named Berlusconi as the principal opposition leader he would deal with. D’Alema thus did much to save Berlusconi’s political career. Following his defeat in the 1996 elections, Berlusconi was in serious political trouble. Other members of his center-right coalition were calling for a new leader. The investigations into Berlusconi’s business dealings were becoming more intense; with the center-left in power, he feared he would have to sell one or two of his TV networks and lose the financing from state-owned banks that he needed to keep his financial empire afloat. D’Alema appears to have concluded cynically that Berlusconi’s vulnerable position would make him a pliable negotiating partner; he would, D’Alema apparently thought, agree to an overhaul of the electoral system in exchange for what amounted to personal immunity.

The negotiations dragged on for nearly five years and D’Alema, after making concession after concession to Berlusconi, won exactly nothing. The May 13 elections were held under the same rules as in 1996 and produced a fairly solid majority for Berlusconi. D’Alema’s willingness to sacrifice so much for the sake of a new election law was largely unnecessary. But the protracted D’Alema–Berlusconi dealings rescued Berlusconi from his political difficulties and reinforced his position as the undisputed leader of the center-right. They gave legitimacy to his conflicts of interest and had the effect of making the public all the more used to the bizarre anomalies of his mixing private and political power. When Berlusconi appeared ready to sell his television empire to Rupert Murdoch, D’Alema and many on the left opposed the sale, referring in flattering tones to Berlusconi’s TV stations as “a national resource.” At another point, D’Alema insisted that he trusted Italian television far more than the country’s newspapers—an astonishing observation to anyone who has had the misfortune of watching Italy’s broadcast news. The average Italian could well conclude that if Berlusconi’s media monopoly was not a problem for his main political rival, why should it be for him?

The center-left put together a bi-partisan conflict-of-interest bill so bland that it would allow Berlusconi’s current monopoly of private television to continue virtually unaltered. (The bill passed the lower house of the Italian parliament but became stalled in the Senate. Berlusconi has promised to revive it: he could then announce that he has even passed a conflict-of-interest bill drafted by the left.)

In similar fashion, D’Alema and the center-left, together with Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, worked out changes in the Italian judicial system that have made it almost impossible to prosecute crimes of political corruption. Ostensibly, the idea was to reform Italian justice along American lines, in which virtually all evidence must be presented orally, with the defense having the opportunity to cross-examine all witnesses—what the Italians like to call the “Perry Mason” system. But some of the other aspects of the old system were left in place and these can cripple the prosecution. For example, the Italian system includes the right of witnesses not to testify, even in cases where self-incrimination is not an issue. Under the old system, this was not a big problem since pre-trial depositions or evidence from previous cases could be used instead of testimony at trial. Under the new system, a witness to a crime can simply change his or her mind and decide—whether because of intimidation, corruption, friendship, or caution—not to appear in court, and thereby can short-circuit a prosecution.

 

Moreover, moving from a written to an oral system has made Italian trials much, much longer, but no provision was made to change the country’s statute of limitations. For offenses involving less than five years in prison, including most white-collar crimes, the prosecution has only five years from the time the crime is committed to win a conviction. Since the Italian justice system provides for three levels of appeal, this placed a burden on Italian prosecutors even when much evidence could be submitted in written form. Now trials are much longer than before but the statute of limitations has remained unchanged. Thus the defense is almost guaranteed to win by filing time-consuming motions until the clock runs out. Berlusconi himself and many in his entourage have overturned convictions by taking advantage of the statute of limitations law. The overall result of these “reforms” is that virtually none of the thousands of defendants charged in the many hundreds of corruption investigations that began in 1992 and known as Operation Clean Hands are in jail, and Berlusconi has been able to avoid any real accounting for the extensive evidence of illegality discovered in his business affairs.

Berlusconi has often accused the Milan prosecutors who initiated Operation Clean Hands as being red-robed puppets of D’Alema and the former Communists. The judicial reforms backed by D’Alema demonstrated just the opposite. As a lifelong professional politician, D’Alema resented the continual intrusion of the magistrates into the national life; he felt that after having wiped out the old governing parties they should have returned obediently to investigating routine crimes. For him the investigations were not so much attempts to get the Italian political class to observe the rule of the law as they were political devices that could be turned on and off. The result is a reign of nearly total impunity.

The investigations seemed to offer some hope that Italy might become more a country of rules and less a country governed by personal connections and political muscle. Berlusconi’s victory means the defeat of that hope. D’Alema used fundamental matters of principle, including freedom of expression, conflict of interest, and criminal justice, as poker chips in his negotiations with Berlusconi. The culmination of their dealings was a meeting between D’Alema and Berlusconi that occurred in 1997 over dinner on the terrace of the Rome apartment of one of Berlusconi’s closest advisers. The press accounts of the meeting made much of the jovial feeling that prevailed as the two leaders worked out the shape of Italy’s future. One of Berlusconi’s aides, we were told, wrote on a napkin some points that had been neglected about the changes Forza Italia wanted made concerning justice reform. And so, important principles of justice were negotiated away by people who were not even elected members of the government.

In this, D’Alema, I think, revealed the cultural limitations of his own background, the realpolitik tradition of Palmiro Togliatti and the Italian Communist Party, in which abstract moral principles matter little compared to tactical considerations and a clear-eyed assessment of who controls what. D’Alema seems to have seen himself as the big man of the left negotiating with capitalism itself in the form of Berlusconi. But D’Alema overestimated his tactical abilities; for all his realpolitik, he ended up seeming hopelessly naive. Berlusconi is not a deep thinker, but he has great animal cunning when it comes to protecting his interests; he had D’Alema for supper.

As important principles were negotiated away in such deals, D’Alema blurred the differences between center-right and center-left, disillusioning many voters who thought they were voting for a change. This was unfortunate because the Prodi government, as well as the governments of D’Alema and of Giuliano Amato, which followed, contained many capable, hard-working ministers. They rectified Italy’s ailing balance sheet, put the economy back on a solid footing, and won important concessions from unions and pensioners without dismantling many parts of the country’s social welfare system which most Italians are anxious to maintain. At the same time, they improved such basic services as Italy’s post office and telephone company. Under the center-left coalition there were fewer signs of the corruption that has plagued Italian postwar life.

The Italian public perceived this and when Prodi’s coalition appeared about to collapse in 1998, the result of threats by some coalition members to resign, crowds of ordinary Italians demonstrated before parliament to protest. That Italians, with their deep dislike of government, actually protested the fall of a coalition was something of a change.

 

The center-left parties seemed quickly to forget the reasons why they won the elections of 1996. They had managed to unify themselves around a centrist prime minister with a moderate center-left platform that appealed to a broad range of Italians. In 1998, Fausto Bertinotti, the head of Rifondazione Comunista, the hard-line remnant of the former Communist Party, withdrew his support from the government essentially because it was not sufficiently to the left. Bertinotti has failed to understand that the current electoral system favors broad coalitions rather than ideological purity. A prisoner of the fratricidal mentality of the old Communists, Bertinotti, like Ralph Nader here, ran most of his campaign against his former allies of the center-left. Having obtained 5 percent of the vote and thus contributed to Berlusconi’s triumph, he now acts as if he and his party had won the elections. Bertinotti should ask himself why he receives so much airtime on Berlusconi’s TV stations when the other leaders of the center-left are virtually invisible. He serves to frighten Italy’s conservative voters (“See, there really are still Communists in Italy!”), while every vote he earns is taken from the center-left. In fact, if Rutelli’s Olive Coalition had had his votes and those of the small party of former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, another splinter group from the center-left, the outcome of the recent election would have been extremely close and the result possibly different.

Bertinotti, however, is not the only one to blame. In 1996 Prodi was extremely stubborn in refusing to negotiate to bring new partners into his coalition. And after D’Alema worked hard to elect Prodi, he seems to have resented the Prodi government’s success. One of D’Alema’s close aides told me: “We elected Prodi and he is getting all the credit.” D’Alema, she said, was anxious to become prime minister himself. While it may be wrong to say, as many do, that D’Alema engineered Prodi’s downfall in order to take his place, it is fair to say that he did not do everything he might have done to keep Prodi in power, and was happy when he himself became prime minister in 1998.

This played perfectly into Berlusconi’s hands, allowing him to run not against the moderate economist Prodi but against D’Alema, an ex-Communist who had risen to power through deals among parties. Berlusconi won a huge victory in the European parliamen-tary elections of 1999 running against D’Alema and the Communists. In this election, D’Alema suddenly felt the full weight of having his former negotiating partner’s media empire directed against him. Berlusconi’s party bombarded the country with some 803 political advertisements broadcast on his three TV networks, while the Olive Coalition did not sponsor a single ad. Since public TV in Italy does not broadcast political ads, the center-left was in the position of either paying money to its opponent or doing without television advertising.

Suddenly the left began calling desperately for conflict-of-interest and antitrust legislation, but, after four years in power, these demands came to appear to be hypocritical and self-interested. The left then patched together a caretaker government headed by Giuliano Amato, a former Socialist prime minister, and, in complete disarray, headed toward the 2001 elections. Had the Prodi government remained in power until the recent elections it would have been the first time an Italian government had lasted for the entire term of the legislature. That could have been an impressive show of seriousness of purpose and a desire for change. I suspect that D’Alema, in particular, would have gained enormous credit and respect for putting his personal interests aside for the national good. Instead, many voters felt betrayed. As one angry voter quoted recently by the Turin newspaper La Stampa put it: “I voted for a government headed by a centrist economist and then found myself with D’Alema, an ex-Communist, and then Amato, the former right-hand man of [Socialist leader Bettino] Craxi.”

 

It is true that the the center-left candidate, Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome, did far better than many supposed. Drafted at the last minute, he appeared to be a handsome figurehead with no real following or party behind him. Instead, he campaigned effectively and the party he represented, called La Margherita (The Daisy), a small group started by Romano Prodi, won a surprising 14.5 percent of the vote, nearly overtaking D’Alema’s Party of the Left, which dropped from 21.2 to 16.6 percent. Thus Prodi’s idea of a broad center-left coalition as opposed to D’Alema’s idea of a coalition under the control of the left appears to have been appreciated by voters.

Moreover, Rutelli is a big-city mayor, and the one reform that has worked extremely well in Italy in the last several years has been the direct election of mayors. Instead of being the representatives of party coalitions, as in the past, mayors now have a direct popular mandate. With a clear majority, they have the power to act and can then be held responsible by voters at the end of their terms. Such cities as Venice and Turin in the North and Naples, Palermo, and Catania in the South are cleaner, safer, and better managed than in the past, and their mayors were returned to office by huge majorities of more than 60 and even 70 percent. The passage of greater authority to elected local officials has created new centers of power in the cities; and Italy could benefit if new politicians were to emerge from them rather than from the back rooms of the old political parties.

—May 23, 2001

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