Allan Massie: Don’t bet against Berlusconi

Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Picture: AP
Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Picture: AP
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The wily showman is unlikely to let fraud and prostitution scandals bring about the end of his career, writes Allan Massie.

A FORMER prime minister, whose party is a key part of the governing coalition, is found guilty of having sex with an under-age prostitute, and of having used his influence to tamper with the course of justice. He is sentenced to seven years in prison and banned for life from holding public office. In a previous case, he was found guilty of tax fraud and banned from public office for five years. One might assume that his political career is over.

That would surely be the case here. No British politician could survive such disgrace. Nor could an American or German one. But this happened in Italy, and they do things differently there. Moreover, the man in question is Silvio Berlusconi and Berlusconi, for all his faults, and for all his many detractors and enemies, remains the nearest thing Italy has to a popular –and not only populist – politician. He is a character and a card, not a boring and faceless technocrat. A couple of years ago I asked an Italian diplomat, not himself a fan of Il Cavaliere, why so many Italians still admired Berlusconi. “Well, he’s very rich and has lots of women”, was the reply.

True enough. Reports of Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties have been the stuff of gossip columns for years and, doubtless, the envy of many Italian men. He himself describes them as “elegant soirees”, which is surely good for a laugh. The girls themselves seem to have been well rewarded.

The alleged prostitute, known as Ruby the Heart Stealer, says that nothing untoward happened. She, indeed, has reason to be grateful to Berlusconi. He intervened when the Milan police arrested her on a charge of theft, and again allegedly told them to release her because she was a daughter, grand-daughter or niece (versions vary) of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and it was necessary to avoid a diplomatic incident.

Actually, lots of the girls loyally testified on behalf of Berlusconi, to the displeasure of the three judges, who have asked for the evidence of 30 witnesses to be investigated with a view to perjury charges being levelled at them.

So, what next? Is the old boy finally done for, stake through the heart and all that? Well, as I wrote earlier, this is Italy. So the answer is “probably not”. There are two reasons, apart from the popularity he still enjoys with millions, even while he infuriates and embarrasses millions more.

First, Berlusconi insists that he is the victim, not the villain. The cases brought against him are politically motivated, and the judges are all left-wing and biased. This is not as incredible as it may sound. There are many honourable and impartial judges in Italy, but many are indeed political and have a political agenda.

Destroying Berlusconi is the aim of the Italian Left. He has said that he expected to be found “not guilty” in this latest trial, but this is incredible, if only because it flies in the face of his claim that both the judges and the cases brought against him are politically motivated. More to the point is the comment of one of his party’s MPs, Luca D’Alessandro: “This sentence is a rape of the law in the name of a political struggle carried on by judicial means.” Lots of Berlusconi’s supporters agree with this.

Second, Berlusconi’s party, the PDL, and those associated with it in a centre-right coalition, got 29 per cent of the vote in this year’s general election, and form part of the governing coalition. If Berlusconi, not yet debarred from politics because both judgments against him will be appealed, chooses to pull his party out of the coalition, then there would almost certainly have to be new elections.

Comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which got 25 per cent of the vote last time, looks like a flash in the pan; it is already falling apart. Berlusconi would probably be the chief beneficiary of its disintegration, and, with his allies, might emerge victorious from a new round of elections. Whatever the outcome, it’s improbable that any government could be formed without his support – and one condition of that support might be a promise to pass an immunity law protecting his position. Nobody – alas, some will say – should find this incredible. It may not even be unlikely.

In any case, it would be a great surprise if Berlusconi ever finds himself in a prison cell. The appeals procedure will stretch out, and his convictions may be overthrown. Even if they aren’t, elderly people are usually spared prison in Italy – and he is now 76 The chances are that he will be active in Italian politics for some time yet.

This may seem extraordinary. Apart from the scandals and the prosecutions, which in most countries would be enough to end a politician’s career, Berlusconi has achieved very little in his various spells as prime minister. This, admittedly, is not entirely his fault. Few Italian governments achieve much. They rarely enjoy a stable majority and the Italian bureaucracy is better at preventing or obstructing reform than implementing it. Keeping the show on the road is as much as most governments can hope for, and Italians expect very little from their political class.

Well-educated Italians may be ashamed of Berlusconi, but his appeal rests primarily in the fact that he is not really a politician. His talent, which is considerable, is for showmanship, not politics. In this respect, he resembles Mussolini. One of Il Duce’s biographers, Paolo Monelli, summed him up in a judgment that may equally be applied to Berlusconi: “The Italians saw in him only the tenor for whom they raved as they had years before for Caruso and Tamagno. As one does with tenors, they enjoyed the good long notes and the melody without paying any attention to the words.”

In his book The Italians, Luigi Barzini wrote that “obviously, Mussolini’s technique was not meant for men of taste and culture”, but “it pleased his public”. The same may be said of Berlusconi. The technique is different, adapted to the age of television, but the effect is the same. Putting on a good show is what matters; and this is what Il Cavaliere has done. So he is not finished yet, not quite anyway.