The Italian prime minister's corrosion of the country’s public life means that even his departure would offer Italy no clear route to renewal, says Geoff Andrews.
Silvio Berlusconi, the most successful populist politician of modern times, has long mastered the art of appealing over the heads of professional politicians to reach the "bellies" rather than the "brains" of ordinary Italians. In his three periods as Italy's prime minister (May 1994-January 1995, June 2001-May 2006, and from May 2008) he has seen off seven centre-left leaders to remain the dominant figure in Italy's political landscape.
Berlusconi's ability to dominate the media and turn even critical attention to his advantage have been invaluable assets in this regard. Could this pattern of domination now be changing? Is Berlusconi's long hegemony approaching its end? The most recent flurry of stories and scandals - concerning his relations with young women, beginning with Noemi Letizia, his 18-year-old friend from Naples who calls him "Papi" - are certainly among the most damaging he has faced; and there is great significance in the fact that he is no longer in control of events.
But there is a sense in which even Silvio Berlusconi's own fate has already become a secondary factor in what is happening. For the series of events which have engulfed the 72-year-old premier and which now dominate large sections of the press inside and outside Italy can no longer be reduced - if they ever could - to a question of his own personal behaviour. Rather, Berlusconi's crisis has become the peculiar tragedy of modern Italy itself.
The media-political storm
Silvio Berlusconi has attracted negative media coverage in the past. What looks different this time is that the near-daily exposures from young women, alleging that he paid for sex, reveal a web of deceit at the heart of Italian politics. True, the private and the public domains have - the prime minister's denials to the contrary - rarely been distinct in his career. What recent events reveal most vividly is the extent to which Silvio Berlusconi's own values have become embedded in Italian public life.
The manner of Berlusconi's contemptuous response to the claims from various women - that he paid for sex with them, or offered them jobs for his TV network or as candidates for his party - reveals a lack of transparency in the Italian political system as well as threats to media freedom that would be unacceptable in any other western democracy. Berlusconi ignored these claims for several weeks, and refused to answer any of the questions posed to him (including in open Democracy - see "Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" [5 June 2009] and "Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please" [9 June 2009]).
It was typical that the prime minister should then ignore normal channels of democratic accountability and turn to the gossip magazine, Chi, which he owns, to state his denials. His behaviour suggests that in Italy politics has been replaced by the display of personal omnipotence. How much further will Italy's decrepit political culture and degenerate body-politic be allowed to sink?
Italy hosts the Group of Eight (G8) summit in L'Aquila on 8-10 July 2009, and the performance of the Italian premier will be the primary focus. Berlusconi is more isolated than ever within the international community; he counts only the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, as a close ally. The signs that his diminishing status is further tarnishing Italy's own reputation are widespread, from the embarrassed responses of other leaders to his behaviour to the effort by a group of academics to persuade the G8 "first ladies" to boycott the L'Aquila summit. Even his relations with the Catholic church are strained: after a brief rapprochement when he tried to push through a decree to keep Eluana Englaro alive, his latest indiscretions have caused a series of leading clergy to reproach him (Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa pointedly condemned "men drunk on a delirium of their own greatness...").
The crisis goes deeper than his relations with young women. On 21 May 2009, Berlusconi described the Italian parliament as "useless", saying that only 100 MPs were necessary to get the business done and contrasting legislators unfavourably with businessmen. In February 2009, a court ruled that he had bribed the British lawyer David Mills to provide false testimony, even as he himself is protected from prosecution by parliamentary-immunity legislation passed by his own government. Berlusconi has offered no explanation for this. The pattern here of an absence of any commitment to democratic accountability by the country's elected leader has led La Repubblica - which has done an exemplary job in pursuing the truth of Berlusconi's actions - to issue a further ten questions for him to answer (see "Le dieci domande mai poste al Cavaliere" [14 May 2009] and "Le dieci nuove domande al Cavaliere" [La Repubblica, 26 June 2009].
At the same time, the government's own attitudes to the media its does not control are problematic. Berlusconi has urged companies not to advertise in the weekly L'Espresso (a publication from the same media group as La Repubblica). His minister for culture and close ally Sandro Bondi has described La Repubblica as a "threat to democracy" - an extraordinary way to characterise the normal functioning of a newspaper in a free society. In addition, the director of the public broadcaster RAI - part of Berlusconi's media empire - has declined to broadcast details of the claims against Berlusconi (something equivalent to the BBC refusing to cover the parliamentary-expenses scandal in Britain).
Berlusconi and after
Italy is a very divided country, and the adverse international press coverage of its leader - even now - influences only part of the population. Yet, what it has created is a climate of shame and embarrassment amongst Italians within and beyond Italy; that their identity is now bound up with the persona of Silvio Berlusconi. There is growing recognition that things cannot continue as they are. As foreign press criticism has increased, more Italians have been stirred to vent their anger and to call on allies in the west to continue their investigations.
Indeed, some of Silvio Berlusconi's closest allies have suggested to Guy Dinmore, Rome correspondent for the Financial Times, that they are preparing for life without him (see Berlusconi whispers grow louder", Financial Times, 25 June 2009). They are clearly very worried where the current web of dubious and perhaps criminal actions will lead.
Giuliano Ferrara, editor of Il Foglio and one of Berlusconi's most astute intellectual allies, has warned that Italy could have another "24 July" on its hands; a reference to the date in 1943 when Mussolini was dismissed by King Victor Emmanuel III and subsequently set up the Republic of Salo`. Once again, Italy finds itself with a leader obsessed with power, who, having positioned himself above the law and believing himself invincible, may be predisposed to bring others down with him in a last gesture of defiance.
These are worrying times for all who care about Italy, irrespective of their political views. Silvio Berlusconi will not resign easily. If he does relinquish power voluntarily or as the result of pressure, he will lose parliamentary immunity and could face further prosecution. There is no obvious successor from his party who has wide appeal. Yet the opposition remains very weak. There is no prospect for much needed reforms to the Italian constitutional system and, so far, no sign of a popular groundswell for change.
The only political beneficiaries to date from Berlusconi's troubles have been the xenophobic Northern League, which performed well in Italy's elections to the European parliament on 6-7 June. The league can still prove an awkward government partner, as it did in December 1994 when the first Berlusconi government fell. The demise of Silvio Berlusconi's reign, if it is coming, could be protracted and painful; and it could leave Italy's long-term prospects remaining bleak. A tragedy indeed.