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The beloved ‘Cavaliere’: Berlusconi’s death will not resolve Italy's democracy problem

June 23, 2023 at 12:02 pm

Supporters of Silvio Berlusconi wait for the start of his funeral service outside of the Duomo of Milan, Italy, on June 14, 2023 [Riccardo De Luca – Anadolu Agency]

“Berlusconi is there because others have failed.” These words by Italian columnist Massimo Franco were made to the Washington Post in 2018, shortly before the Italian elections. They sum up the story of Italy’s modern politics.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s adored but also loathed longest-serving prime minister died on 12 June. His party, Forza Italia, is a partner in Italy’s current government coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni.

Berlusconi has not served as a prime minister since 2011. Despite his old age – he died at 86 – and his many scandals, he continued to cast a shadow over Italian politics, even when dying at Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital.

Judging by the ongoing television coverage of his state funeral, and around-the-clock commentary, one suspects that the legacy of the Italian leader will dominate Italian political and popular discourses for years to come.

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But why is this the case?

Few in Italian political history have been accused of the kind of corruption that dogged Berlusconi throughout his years in power. In fact, in 2013 he was banned from running for any official office for five years due to tax fraud.

Allegations of corruption have been linked to Berlusconi since the start of his political career. In 2003, he faced charges that a company, which belonged to him, had paid a €500 million bribe to a judge in 1991.

Yet, with each legal accusation, media allegation or trial, Berlusconi emerged stronger, possibly because his target audience was rarely the Roman political elites, but rather the populace. He spoke tirelessly about being a ‘victim’ of a relentless ‘witch hunt’, making him “the most persecuted man in all of history,” as he once declared in 2009.

Berlusconi’s power – which allowed him to form governments in 1994-95, 2001-05, 2005-06 and 2008-11 – was hardly an outcome of the man’s own unsubstantiated claim of being “the most democratic man ever to be prime minister of Italy”. Rather, it partly stems from the fact that the Italian leader could make such grand pronouncements, unchallenged through his powerful media empire.

Though a billionaire, Berlusconi succeeded in painting himself as a victim of politicised judges – almost an identical approach to former US President Donald Trump’s self-proclaimed fight against the ‘deep state’.

Both Berlusconi and Trump were/are media moguls, with entertainment backgrounds. Berlusconi himself was a comedian. Media power simply translates to omnipresent narratives that turn extremely wealthy and, often corrupt, individuals into ‘men of the people’.

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Berlusconi – like Trump – is a cult personality. This popularity allowed him to serve as prime minister four times and to amass fabulous wealth in a country where the average monthly salary is one of the lowest in the European Union.

Yet, analyses concerning success stories of benevolent, patriarchal political figures who use media influence and wealth to reinvent democracy in the form of popular dictatorship, often end here. But why did many Italians feel the need for a Berlusconi-type leader?

Some suggest that many Italians feel nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of fascism. Yet, it would be dishonest to claim that Berlusconi was an outright fascist.

True, his right-wing political party, Forza Italia, did partner with other far-right groups, the likes of Lega Nord. And he did speak often of the importance of “tradizione” – tradition. But Berlusconi is not a Mussolini, who used the parliament to achieve political ascendency, before canceling democracy altogether to rule Italy with an iron fist. At worst, Berlusconi’s powerful corporations took Italy back to the age of ‘Corporatism’, a term used in the past, which is considered the precursor to fascism.

Italians, like all people everywhere, do not elevate democracy just because of its intellectual merit, but because of the tangible difference it can make in their lives. In 2017, data gathered by the EU indicated that 60 per cent of Italians are not happy with their democratic system.

Indeed, Italy is one of the most unstable democracies in Europe. Since the establishment of the Italian Republican system in 1946, the country has had 68 governments. The only exception to this rule was Berlusconi who, between 2001 and 2005, served a full term.

The late Italian leader’s supporters say that Berlusconi was genuine, humble and funny. He approached all Italians as equals. He was also a self-made man and, whether genuine or not, he cared about the country. His massive fan club nicknamed him ‘Il Cavaliere’, the knight.

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Conveniently, some analysts blame ordinary people for their gullibility which allowed the likes of Berlusconi to use democracy as a vehicle for his own quest for power and wealth. But this is short-sighted.

Berlusconi would have never ruled over Italy if it were not for the near complete distrust of the others, those who speak of democracy, balance of power and respect for institutions, only to achieve power and do everything to hold on to their seats.

Berlusconi was not the exception to this rule. He survived longer, however, because he had influential media channels, like Mediaset, which allowed him to fight, and often defeat his detractors.

Still, we must keep in mind that, with or without Berlusconi, Italy remains a democracy. The fact that the people managed to topple numerous governments, voted in referendums against self-serving attempts at redrafting the Constitution, and fought against corruption at every level of society, is a testament to the power of a people who fought fascism in all of its forms, old and new.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.