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At last, Berlusconi is to resign. But it’s a mystery he lasted so long

Italians saw in Berlusconi what they saw in Mussolini – an anti-establishment figure who defied the law

By on Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Berlusconi endures a voting session in the Italian parliament earlier this week (Photo: PA)

Berlusconi endures a voting session in the Italian parliament earlier this week (Photo: PA)

At last, Silvio Berlusconi is to resign! No doubt Italians everywhere are taking down their dancing shoes and buying in the spumante against the day the old rascal finally goes. E J Thribb, the famous elegist, is perhaps already sharpening his pen. But the no doubt exuberant celebrations ought to be tempered by a degree of realism.

First of all, rejoicing at the downfall of a hated politician is becoming something of a habit in Italy. When Mussolini fell in September 1943, to be replaced by Marshal Badoglio, people celebrated in the streets of Rome. Less than two years later, when the fascist dictator was shot, there was more unseemly rejoicing in Piazzale Loreto, Milan. When Bettino Craxi was forced out, and later fled into exile in Tunisia to avoid prosecution for corruption, there was much satisfaction, and talk of a new political settlement, a turning of the page, una seconda Republicca. When the political godfather of the Christian Democrat party, Giulio Andreotti, was accused of a raft of crimes, including collusion with the Mafia, amidst the implosion of the party that had dominated the country for nearly 50 years, there was much talk of a political revolution. Yet all of these men – Mussolini, Craxi, Andreotti, along with Berlusconi himself – were all at one time the idols of the Italian public.

What is remarkable about the fall of Berlusconi is not that he has fallen, but that he has lasted so long. He is, in fact, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Italian history after Mussolini, beating the record once held by Bettino Craxi. By Italian standards, in a country where governments that lasted a year were thought to be doing well, that is some considerable achievement. And yet, during a 17-year-long career in politics, which included almost a decade as Prime Minister, in three separate administrations, what did he achieve? He had more opportunity than many of his predecessors, having for the most part a united party and strong coalition behind him, but did he deliver the reforms Italy needed so badly? Not he! He leaves Italy considerably worse off than he found it, up to its eyeballs in debt, facing a default. The Berlusconi years represent a terrible lost opportunity.

But why did they put up with him so long? Why indeed did they put up with Mussolini, and with Craxi and with Andreotti for so long? In the case of Berlusconi, there seems to be little excuse. The Duce had a great propaganda machine behind him, and some solid achievements. Craxi and Andreotti were shrewd political operators, and Andreotti a man of great ability. But Berlusconi? His cheesy media empire might have helped, but no amount of showgirls and ageing television presenters could ever make Berlusconi look anything more than a surgically enhanced sleazy mountebank. And voters really had no excuse, for the Economist had spelled out to them why Berlusconi was unfit to hold office, back in 2001. Berlusconi himself dismissed the Economist as the house journal of the English Communists, and people voted for him anyway.

Why the Italians loved Berlusconi so much is something of a mystery. Partly it must have been a visceral distrust of the Left, and a belief that anything was better than a government of ex-Communists and socialists. But it was much more than that. It was perhaps because Italians actually admire a 75-year-old man with 18-year-old girlfriends and a hair transplant. They admire a man who gets away with it, a man who defies the law. In short, they see in Berlusconi what they saw in Mussolini – an anti-establishment figure.

One last point: please do not blame the success of Berlusconi on the Church. The Church in Italy was closely allied to the Christian Democrat party, and what is left of the old party has, to its credit, often opposed il Cavaliere, as Berlusconi is known. Berlusconi has often tried to court the Catholic vote, though never with much skill. Berlusconi had little understanding of religion: but what he did understand was Mammon, the new god that dominates modern Italy. Now that he is soon to be gone the Italian bishops must be hoping for the revival of the old Christian Democrat party – but that may just be a dream.

  • Anonymous

    Today investors from Washington to Beijing are salivating at the prospect of the installation of an honest Italian functionnaire to entice Italians to walk along the path of financial rectitude and as a reward the European establishment will shower lots of sweeties in the form of newly minted monopoly money upon the grateful citizenry of Rome and Florence.

    To this cruel illusion I have two comments.

    The first, a piece of advice; never run after lemmings.

    Secondly an honest man running the affairs of Italy is a plot from a Shakespearian tragedy.

  • Confusedof Chi

    Now that Il Cavaliere has ‘retired’ he will have more time for his hobbies!

  • Annie

    But will his ‘hobbies’ have any time for him now he’s ‘retired’?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    A shrewd observation from Annie!

  • Cassandra

    More likely the Italians could not stand any of the other alternatives! 
    Perhaps Greece and Italy should together leave the infamous Euro and Create their own system after all they did until at least 400AD. Why not again? When they do that we might achieved Church Unity with the Eastern Church. We will get rid of the Germans the cause of all religious friction for over 1000 years not to mention those ghastly teutonised slavs the Prussians!

  • Anonymous

    Berlusconi is awful, but I don’t think we can lay all the problems of Italy at his door. The level of debt was huge before he came along and while he did nothing about it neither did any of the others. The huge problem Italy has is that it is a member of the Euro and consequently has no control over its own interest rates and the value of its currency. How long before people start pointing the finger at Romano Prodi who was very much the man who got Italy into the disastrous and suicidal Euro. Anyway is Berlusconi really in control anymore? For the past few months he seems to have been told what to do by Merkel, Sarkozy and various unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. We seem to be seeing a breakdown of democracy and accountability in Europe at the moment. Troubling times indeed.

  • Cha-Mai

    Not very kind to the slavs my dear.

  • Cassandra

    It is not a comment against the slavs. It is more against western arrogance!

  • Oconnordamien

    I was lucky to spend some time back-packing in Italy 20 years ago and my memories are of the people. Amazing country in all respects but most of my memories stem from the people there. Generous, kind, friendly, demonstrative, passionate, cool, intelligent but most of all pretty much loonies one and all.

    I think at that time they had an ex-porn star and a niece of il Duce in parliament. 

  • Parasum

    “One last point: please do not blame the success of Berlusconi on
    the Church. The Church in Italy was closely allied to the Christian
    Democrat party,…” ## If Berlusconi is considered a fit person to be in the high position he held, that speaks volumes about the moral tone of public life in Italy, and therefore, about the quality of the Church’s life in Italy. Sorry, but fornication is not admirable, least of all in those who hold high positions.