Loyal support in unusual places keeps Berlusconi in power, despite his exotic love lifeby Peter Popham / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Over the past 20 years many leaders of great power and solidity have been suddenly overthrown. Italy experienced such a moment in 1992 when a national bribery scandal brought down most of its political class. And its current leader, Silvio Berlusconi, has seemed ripe for a judicial variant of the Ceausescu treatment ever since he was first elected in 1994. So what sort of hold does this ageing, lecherous plutocrat have over his people that prevents them getting rid of him?
There has always been ammunition: the alleged mafia connections; opaque financing of his television empire; strong-arm business tactics and questionable accounting practices. Magistrates laboured for years to build corruption charges against him. But bloody-minded determination, and an ability to occasionally rewrite the law, means he remains untouched.
If the law can’t bring him down, some think his weakness for girls might. The Italian press has been filled for months with lubricious details of the 72-year-old grandfather’s flings and private parties. Leaders elsewhere might fantasise about such things, but one cannot think of another democracy where a prime minister would survive them. Yet Berlusconi shrugs it off. His popularity has dipped fractionally but remains close to 50 per cent.
Back in 1994 Berlusconi, much like Margaret Thatcher, won by appealing to an aspirational lower-middle class that had lost patience with the ruling elite. Here was the consummate anti-politician who brought Dynasty to their televisions and whose success might rub off on them.
Women, in particular, loved him. Loud, glossy female supporters were a feature of his support from the outset. Some see this as the all-forgiving love of the Italian mamma for her spoiled brat, and there is an element of truth here. But at the same time he was gallant to his own mother, provided handsomely for his wife and children, went to church when required, and took care to maintain la bella figura—good appearances. A chaotic private life and a compulsion to seduce were just part of the charm.
Many Italians seem to have found little that is truly shocking in the latest allegations. Berlusconi, they say, has always been like this. He had three children out of wedlock before divorcing his first wife and marrying his mistress. Even then he was endlessly promiscuous: the late Carlo Caracciolo, founder of the newspaper La Repubblica, recalled breakfast meetings before Berlusconi entered politics where “he used to bring a different girl every time—it seemed an obsession with him.” As the man himself said with stunning candour on the eve of the July G8 summit: “That’s the way I am. I’m too old to change now. People take me as they find me.”
His attitude is made possible by continuing support from the Catholic church. His morality might not please them, but while several bishops criticised him after the latest scandals, those that matter again stayed silent. Of all the candidates who might lead Italy, only Berlusconi is reliable on the issues that the church holds dear: abortion, euthanasia, IVF treatment and civil partnerships. While their pact is rarely spelled out, it is the rock on which Berlusconi’s popularity rests.
His priapism seems not to damage his political support either. His coalition, largely unchanged since 1994, yokes together the anti-southern secessionists of the Northern League with the post-fascist National Alliance. Bringing these untouchables together was a typically unconventional move, but it has endured: neither party would be in government without him, so neither wants to turn on him now.
The clinching factor, though, is the lack of an alternative. Berlusconi promised an economic miracle in 2001, and nobody—not even those who get their news from his television channels—believes that he has delivered it. But, the voters ask, could others do better, especially given the incoherence of Romano Prodi’s brief centre-left government from 2006 to 2008? With all his failings, Berlusconi has made Italy more stable than at any point in the last 50 years. And he has no successor who could hope to hold his coalition together. Italians know that when he departs it’s going to be a shambles. So cautious, conservative and cynical as they are, they prefer to put off the evil day, and cleave to their charming libertine for as long as they can.