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Ciao, Ciao: The Rise and Fall of Berlusconi

By Seoyoon Han

ON 16 November 2011, Silvio Berlusconi, the longest serving prime minister of Italy since WWII, lost his parliamentary majority and resigned from his post. Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner, was welcomed as a technocratic prime minister who might rescue Italy from its devastating economic spiral. Berlusconi, however, is far from a bygone politician and still has great influence over Italian politics.

A successful real estate magnate and the owner of Italy’s biggest media company, Mediaset, Berlusconi entered the political world with his own party, Forza Italia, in 1993. He presented himself as Il Cavaliere, “The Knight,” who would eradicate corruption, promote free market economics, and protect traditional ideals of family while at the same time pave the way for a new Italy. The richest man in Italy, with the rhetorical skill of Demosthenes, Berlusconi sought and won the office of the prime minister three times from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011.

From day one, his premiership has been filled with controversies and scandals. His attitude towards women has drawn the international community’s harshest criticism. Broadcasting companies under Mediaset such as Canale 5 have featured various programs in which women are portrayed degradedly. Rumors that he often invited young women to his house to have “Bunga Bunga” sex parties have become a source of international humiliation and mockery. The most recent scandal to produce a media circus was Rubygate. Berlusconi is currently under investigation for engaging in paid sex with a minor, a Moroccan teenage dancer known as “Ruby the Heartstealer.”

Berlusconi’s transgressions in office extended far beyond his personal life. He exploited his political power to bend laws and make people serve him rather than the country. One example of this is Berlusconi’s appointment of female participants of his TV programs to important government positions. Gabriella Carlucci, a hostess of many Berlusconi shows, is now a mayor of the city of Margherita di Savoia. Nicole Minetti, a former showgirl, is now a member of the influential Council of Lombardy and is suspected of introducing prostitutes to Berlusconi. It is not just these appointments that has raised eyebrows and generated disgust. Berlusconi has been tried 26 times for tax evasion, bribery, false testimony, mafia collusion, extensive manipulation of the media, and various other offenses.

His worse offense proved to be his handling of the financial crisis. Italy has long suffered from certain economic structural flaws. Companies are prone to building coalitions that create high market barriers to entry, hurt competition, and inflate prices. Berlusconi presented himself as a reformer and an advocate of the free market, but did little to tackle these deficiencies. And why would he? He is the richest businessman in Italy. The 2008 financial crisis hit an already sluggish economy in Italy, causing severe unemployment and skyrocketing debt. Berlusconi himself did not survive the momentum of events. Last month, after over a decade of rule, the “Il Cavaliere” was dethroned. Fiscal mismanagement and incompetence, not “Bunga Bunga” or Rubygate, proved too much for Italians to tolerate.

The question remains: Why did Italy tolerate Berlusconi for as long as they did? Why did they wait for the economic disaster? The perpetuation of this seemingly unfathomable situation lies in the unique cultural and political background of Italy. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and unification in the late 19th century, the peninsula was a jigsaw of small territories and independent cities. The great diplomat Lord Metternich referred to Italy as nothing more than a “geographical expression.” A century and a half after Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Cavour, the country still lacks a strong sense of nationhood and community. Many people feel more loyalty towards their province than their country, united only every four years for the World Cup. Berlusconi has exploited this fragmentation and its wolf pack dynamics. A powerful man with wealth and control of the media, Berlusconi could depend upon the loyalty of the few and influential to act as a buffer. Berlusconi would retain control over the second tier elite who in turn would maintain control over the populace.

Berlusconi’s conduct towards women, meanwhile, may be more socially accepted in Italy than elsewhere. Italy, along with its French neighbors, is less puritan about sexual conduct than the United States. The Global Gender Gap Report, measuring gender-based disparities and tracking female political and social progress, ranked Italy 74th in the world. A recent survey of 4,000 women in the five largest countries in Europe found that 76 percent of Italian housewives were dissatisfied with their lives.

But is it truly over for Berlusconi? His opponents are not yet unified, and Berlusconi’s party still has a strong grip on Italian politics. Berlusconi still has the power to ‘pull a Putin’ and push one of his trustworthy servants to the front as a prime ministerial candidate during the next election in 2013. Or, as The New York Times suggested, if this new government fails to revive the economy, there is a possibility that Berlusconi will present himself as the only alternative that can save the country. Berlusconi has resurrected himself in the past, winning re-election after losing his position in 1995 and 2006. There may be a third time.

Seoyoon Han is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.


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