Is it finally the political end for the maverick and morally dubious Silvio Berlusconi? Thrown out of parliament by the Italian senate for a conviction of tax fraud, he cannot take part in a general election for the next years when, despite desperate attempts to convince people otherwise, he will be eighty-three.
Berlusconi has been the dominant force in Italian politics since winning the 1994 general election with his Forza Italia (Go Italy)-led coalition. After leaving the prime ministerial hot seat in January 1995, he returned for two further spells (2001-2006, 2008-2011) as Italy’s most powerful politician.
A publicity-friendly media mogul and chairman of AC Milan football team, Berlusconi was already well-known when he launched himself into the political fray, using his media companies and financial clout to bombard the public with favourable advertising in the run-up to the 1994 election.
Berlusconi’s flamboyant persona appeared well-married to the Italy of the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite achieving only minor economic growth, the Italians, like the rest of Europe, were caught in a bubble economy that gave the impression of invincibility. People lived beyond their means and Berlusconi’s promises to slash taxes, increase public spending and create new jobs added to the misguided impression of prolonged prosperity.
The man who ruled Italian politics before Berlusconi was Giulio Andreotti, a man sharing Silvio’s immense influence yet whose persona could not have offered a starker contrast to the man of the ‘bunga-bunga- party.
A member of the long-ruling Democrazia Cristiana (DC – Christian Democracy) party, Andreotti too only served three brief spells as Prime Minister (1972-73, 1976-79, 1989-1992). That said, he also held several other important ministerial posts and his corrente (political clique) within the DC was particularly influential.
Like Berlusconi, Andreotti suited the times in Italy. His stern disposition, backroom dealing and uncompromising nature helped steer Italy through the economic malaise and social unrest of the 1970s and returned the country to economic growth. Even in the immediate post-WWII period he had helped modernise a nation desperately ravaged by Mussolini’s fascist excesses.
As with Berlusconi, Andreotti’s name is tainted by controversy. He is widely believed to have colluded with the Mafia to garner political support in Italy’s poorer southern regions and he was criticised for his failure to negotiate the release of Aldo Moro (a political rival in the DC) after he was kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas in 1978. Moro was later murdered in captivity.
Despite their failings (which in Berlusconi’s case are mainly personal, although he has also been rumoured to have forged ties with the Mafia and been accused of cronyism with regards to some of his political appointments) both men endured to secure their place in Italian political history.
Both were leaders for their time, able to forge coalitions between a disparate group of parties that characterise the divisions in Italian society. By 2008, however, Berlusconi was no longer a man capable of leading a much-changed Italy. The financial crisis was beginning to take affect and the austere measures of technocrats like Mario Monti had become essential if Italy was to have any chance of avoiding a huge EU bailout.
It is hard to see Berlusconi recovering from this setback, with age truly against him. One thing is for sure, however; the old maverick won’t go quietly.