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.