Final Fall of Berlusconi? A Political Giant Despite Everything

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.

The wax-like Berlusconi claimed his expulsion was a 'day of mourning' for democracy
The wax-like Berlusconi claimed his expulsion was a ‘day of mourning’ for democracy

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.

Berlusconi's ambitious 'Contract with the Italians' promised much and won him the 2001 election
Berlusconi’s ambitious ‘Contract with the Italians’ promised much and won him the 2001 election

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.

Andreotti in 1977
Andreotti in 1977

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.

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Pleas Come Too Late for the Central African Republic: uncontrollable warfare looms

Deputy Secretary-General Jan Elliason has called for a UN peacekeeping mission to the anarchic Central African Republic (CAR) where daily human rights abuses have devastated yet another African country. In what was already a virtually lawless state, things have got worse since the overthrow of President Francois Bozize by the Seleka rebel group. Rape, mutilations, murder and enforced child soldiering are a consistent reality for the CAR’s desperate people.

Any semblance of law and order has vanished since the Seleka takeover
Any semblance of law and order has vanished since the Seleka takeover

Despite Elliason’s claim that “we cannot look away”, why should the International Community break the habit of decades? Indeed, the strife of the CAR is not new and, like many of its African neighbours, it remains trapped in a state of permanent underdevelopment and misery.

Since independence in 1960, the CAR has fought for stability. It has not been helped by a slew of kleptocratic and maniacal presidents, epitomised by Jean-Bedel Bokassa. After coming to power in a military coup at the beginning of 1966, Bokassa reigned until 1979. Reign is an appropriate word in this case as Bokassa crowned himself Emperor of Central Africa in 1976, throwing a lavish coronation ceremony that virtually bankrupt the nation.

Despite his detrimental rule, Bokassa was 'nationally rehabilitated' by Francois Bozize
Despite his detrimental rule, Bokassa was ‘nationally rehabilitated’ by Francois Bozize

After Bokassa was overthrown in a French-backed coup, rumours of his cannibalism and penchant for throwing enemies to his menagerie of lions and crocodiles materalised. His successors, whilst not as deranged, were equally corrupt. Andre Kolingba (1981-1993), Ange-Felix Patasse (1993-2003) and Bozize (2003-2013) all embezzled billions of Central African Francs from the government treasury, enriching themselves and their families at the expense of the impoverished populace.

During each of these rules, little was done by the International Community to alleviate the woes of the CAR’s people; this despite nominal oversight from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how international loans were being put to use.

The CAR has now become a lawless land and, with sizable Muslim and Christian populations, not to mention a varied ethnic composition, the prospect of another Rwanda is being mooted by some. 

The limited commitment of the International Community to the CAR is mirrored throughout Africa; Rwanda, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, Zimbabwe. An almost endless list of states where not enough has been done to prevent brutal atrocities and daily misery for the ordinary citizens. (The African Union (AU) has battled manfully in many of these states but lacks the resources and funding for a sustained and effective commitment).

There is perhaps a simple reason for this malaise and neglect; involvement in one ravaged African state by foreign powers will entail a moral commitment to go into all the other African countries similarly devastated, of which there are several.

Furthermore, many of the problems faced by African states today are the legacy of colonization by countries that wield a significant amount of power in global institutions. With the exception of the French (who intervened against Ansar Dine rebels in Mali), the lack of direct support for former colonies by Western European nations in particular amounts to a desire to forget their role in creating the tragedies of today. Significant security issues are glossed over or ignored for the convenience of the powers-that-be.

Part of the French colony of Ubangi-Shari from 1903 to 1960, the CAR suffered the typical consequences of colonization, with the indigenous population forced to work for the good of the white man with no tangible benefit in return.

Amidst the rebel fighting, the CAR people are brutalised and starved
Amidst the rebel fighting, the CAR people are brutalised and starved

The chances to save the CAR have been numerous yet the time has now gone. With the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) adding another facet to the devastating melting pot, all the International Community can hope for is that genocide does not ensue. Whether attention will be paid in any case, remains to be seen.

Iran Deal Neglects North Korea Warning: the strategic diplomacy of enemies of the West

There has been much back-slapping and self-congratulation amongst the Western powers that have helped broker a deal with Iran regarding the Middle Eastern country’s nuclear weapons program. An overwhelming sense of optimism has greeted the news that the Iranians have agreed to curb their nuclear ambitions in exchange for an easing of Western-imposed sanctions that have crippled the Islamic Republic’s economy.

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Two parties do not share in this optimism. Israel and Saudi Arabia, traditional enemies yet both deeply opposed to the belligerent activities of Shia Iran, see the deal as an historic mistake. This is not simple doom-mongering, however, as the case of North Korea shows.

In 1994, the ‘Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ was signed in a bid to curtail the nuclear ambitions of the isolationist East Asian state. The North Koreans agreed to abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchanged for American fuel imports and help in establishing a civilian nuclear program.

It is contentious whether the North Koreans ever intended to honour the agreement, although the subsequent actions of its government suggests not. By 2003, Kim Jong-Il had withdrawn his country from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and was openly pursuing a nuclear weapons program again.

North Korea has effectively used its relative military prowess for diplomatic gains
North Korea has effectively used its relative military prowess for diplomatic gains

Since 2003, there have been intermittent flashes of hope that the North Koreans will reverse their destabilising posturing. Indeed, the North has on occasions, under the auspices of the Six Party Talks, pledged to restrict its nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions cuts and fuel subsidies from the West. On each occasion, the West has been obliging, part of a desperation not to get embroiled in a military conflict in China’s sphere of influence.

It has taken further unsanctioned nuclear and ballistic missile tests, in addition to belligerent war cries from leader Kim Jong-Un, for the Western powers to finally realise the North Korean game. When times are particularly tough, and sanctions begin to affect the elite not just the starving multitude, then promises of nuclear disarmament are made. These promises soon go out of the window once the North Koreans have got what they want; usually an increased oil supply.

What is to say that the Iranians are not pursuing a similar path of diplomacy? They have already borrowed heavily from the North Koreans on sensitive issues such as ballistic missile capabilities; why not take that rare step of copying North Korean foreign policy, knowing that America and its allies are determined not to get involved in another Middle Eastern war?

North Korea-Iran relations are particularly concerning
North Korea-Iran relations are particularly concerning

Like North Korea, Iran has followed a consistently hostile stance towards the West in recent years. This will not, despite the optimistic claims, change. Despite the Geneva resolution, Iran will continue to develop its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Just when harsh economic sanctions were beginning to undermine the popularity of Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime, the West has capitulated. The onus has now been thrown on the rightfully-wary Israelis to take a firm stance against the Iranian machine.