Thursday, May 05, 2011

Italy: Berlusconi and the Erosion of Italian Democracy

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Italy is experiencing a serious political crisis that is best illustrated by the persona, policies and judicial troubles of its Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. One-hundred-fifty years after unification, Italy is at crossroads, where its democratic principles are in more danger than ever before.

By Paolo M C Cravero for ISN Insights

Silvio Berlusconi is no stranger to close calls with the law; he has been party to 21 trials since 1983 - five still ongoing. None of these trials, however, have impacted on public opinion quite like the 'Ruby affair', in which Berlusconi has been charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power by seeking her release while she was detained in another case. This most recent scandal has captured public attention not only because it involves large numbers of politicians, television starlets and an underage prostitute - but also because it represents, somewhat theatrically, Italy's debased political and socioeconomic present.

An EU founding member and top 10 world economy, Italy seems to have lost sight of the economic and social well-being of its people. Sexism and gender discrimination are serious (and unaddressed) issues, as demonstrated by Italy's abysmal ranking (74 out of 134 countries) in the latest World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report. Youth unemployment reached a new peak (29 percent) last December, leaving young Italians with little hope for the future, while overall growth - according to OECD data - is the lowest of all G7 countries.

As social and economic problems worsen, the political system is paralyzed, with the opposition focused on reshaping the alliance systems, while Berlusconi's allies work to secure his impunity. His allies in Parliament scored a victory on 13 April, approving a last-minute tailor-made law, the so-called 'short-trial' bill, to cap the amount of time allowed to bring a case to court. Once a case reaches its statute-barring time cap, all charges are immediately dropped, the case is terminated and the defendant freed.

If approved by the Senate, two of Berlusconi's ongoing trials would be terminated and - given the drawn-out nature of the Italian judicial system - it could potentially undermine the ability of the judiciary to arrive at a final decision on the 'Ruby affair'. But the implications of this bill are much larger: It would result in the suppression of some other 150,000 cases, leaving victims without justice and judges without the means to guarantee free and fair trials.

The 'empty shell'

To understand the current state of Italian democracy, Berlusconi's role since his 1994 election must be examined. The acclaimed political scientist Giovanni Sartori defined the political system created by Berlusconi as a " democratic Sultanate ", where pomp and despotic power coexist within a democratic framework. It is a system, Sartori argues, that Berlusconi has vacated of democracy - leaving it an "empty shell" - partly because he monopolizes the media and partly because he retains power over the political careers of his colleagues.

The conflict of interest between Berlusconi's roles as both media mogul and head of state has been the leitmotiv of his political career - but never has it been so evident as now. The appointment of Augusto Minzolini in 2009 as the director of the most important Italian news report, the TG1, caused a widespread public uproar when Minzolini demonstrated blatant partisan behavior while reporting the news. In more than one case, Minzolini has been found concealing news reports about Berlusconi sex scandals, giving more airtime to the prime minister and his allies during elections, firing anchormen that dared to officially criticize his editorial decisions - and even reporting false news.

More recently, the appointment of Giuliano Ferrara (director of Il Foglio, one of Berlusconi family's newspapers) to host a primetime Italian public television show has left many to question whether the move was not just intended to further expand the prime minister's propaganda machine.

But the erosion of the democratic process in Italy is not limited solely to the 'fourth pillar' of power. In the past months the voting dynamics within the Parliament have taken a neo-patrimonial twist. The distribution of state resources based on patronage is neither new nor surprising in Italian politics. What is instead quite novel is how these transactions are being carried out so brazenly in the open.

During last December's confidence poll, Berlusconi won by three votes. Two MPs whose votes proved crucial were, until the last minute, part of the new opposition party, Futuro e Libertà per l'Italia. Their rewards for switching sides: Saverio Romano has been appointed a minister, and Maria Grazia Siquilini the vice-president of the Italian Post's board of directors.

Similarly, Italian foreign policy has been driven by personal short-term gains, and characterized by what Fabio Turato, of the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes, calls "pop diplomacy": a mixture of personal diplomacy, promises, show and unpredictability aimed at raising one's image at home rather than achieving international political goals. The Gaddafi-Berlusconi relationship fits this description: friends first; then political allies with the 2008 Treaty of Friendship and the infamous Berlusconi's kiss of Gaddafi's ring; and finally, Berlusconi's hesitation to take a firm stand on the Libyan crisis, which then turned into contradictory and uneasy public declarations. In response, the international allies decided to meet among themselves without Italy to discuss the Libyan situation - and to remind Berlusconi how his government often punches above its weight.

Indeed, Italy is in its deepest crisis since unification 150 years ago. The democratic process has been eroded by political dynamics that place personal gains above the wellbeing of the res publica. Berlusconi's system, the "democratic Sultanate", might assure him impunity and power, but the price for Italy and its democracy might be too high to pay.

Paolo M C Cravero is currently completing his Master in International Affairs at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. He holds a Bachelor in Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.