The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Who Conjured Up Demons

Mario Ricciardi

5 mins - 13 de Junio de 2023, 21:35

Silvio Berlusconi was not a politician by “vocation”. In fact, the story of his rise began in 1993, when the Milanese businessman was fifty-seven years old. Italy was going through one of the most difficult periods in its recent history. The “mani pulite” (clean-hands) judicial investigations had brought to light an irregular system of party financing that had originated during the Cold War years and had been tacitly accepted, if not justified, by the need to curb the spread of communism. Over time, this illegal practice had become widespread, fuelling phenomena of corruption that weighed heavily on the economy and public administration. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, none of the Italian politicians had had the courage or the strength to question this system, also because, in the shadow of the ideals of anti-communism, it had been for many a tool for gaining influence and enriching themselves.

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Many Italian parties were badly affected by the investigations, forcing leaders who had led the country for years to step aside. In fact, the pressure of justice called into question all political balances. On the one hand, the right, which had never been in government, and on the other, the left, whose leaders had managed to survive the pressure of public opinion (after the fall of the Wall, the Communist Party had dissolved, giving rise to a new political formation, the PDS, which seemed to many to be the only alternative left standing as the lynchpin of a new political majority). The transition, however, took place in a sombre climate. Protests, even violent ones, were the order of the day, and a series of attacks of obscure origin (later attributed to the Sicilian mafia) fed the uncertainty of the Italian people, frightening moderates who, after the dissolution of Christian Democracy, found themselves without a political reference point, and feared the prospect of a left-wing government.

In this climate, Silvio Berlusconi, whose businesses had grown and prospered in the shadow of the political system that had gone into crisis, made his first move. Before the vote for the election of Rome’s mayor, he declared that he would vote for Gianfranco Fini if he could. This stance caused a stir, because Fini was then the leader of the Italian Social Movement, a formation that had been founded in 1946 to offer a “political home” to veterans of fascism, and which had never fully severed its ties with the extreme right and with tenets hostile to parliamentary democracy. With his statement, Berlusconi, who had no links with that world, and who in fact had been very close to the Socialist party, and its leader Bettino Craxi, broke one of the unwritten rules of the institutional etiquette of Italian democracy, which relegated the MSI to the role of the “excluded polar” (according to the felicitous expression coined by the political scientist Piero Ignazi). Despite Berlusconi’s support, Fini was defeated. But from that defeat a new political project took off: to give life to a new force (the use of the word “party” was deliberately avoided, because it was too closely linked to the “old” politics) that would offer a perspective to that substantial part of public opinion that did not recognise itself in the policies of the post-communist left.

Berlusconi committed himself to this project, bringing into play the means at his disposal: not only his financial resources, but also his influence as the owner of three national television channels and a daily newspaper, and his extraordinary gifts as a communicator and motivator, honed in the years of his apprenticeship as a businessman. Against the expectations of most observers of Italian politics, who did not believe in the idea of a businessman entering politics, and also of his closest associates, who advised caution, the initiative succeeded. A resounding election victory in 1994 brought Berlusconi for the first time to the Palazzo Chigi, at the head of a coalition that brought together the post-fascist right, the Northern League, and his personal political vehicle, Forza Italia, of which he has remained the owner ever since.

The personal party was but one of the innovations Berlusconi introduced into Italian politics. During the three decades he was among its protagonists, he contributed to uprooting much of the shared assumptions that had held the country together during the second half of the 20th century. This period was an extraordinary season of moral and material progress that transformed Italy from a backward country devastated by the aftermath of the Second World War into one of the world’s leading economic powers. By contrast, the legacy Berlusconi leaves behind at his death is that of a country marginalised in Europe, economically severely depleted, socially divided, in which the fractures are aggravated by a politics that, instead of healing them, exploits them to stay afloat, calling into question national unity itself.

It would be unfair to say that Berlusconi is the only one to blame for Italy’s current situation. But if he is not the only one, he is undoubtedly the main culprit of an institutional and cultural rift that has now turned into moral confusion, fear of the future, distrust of democracy. It is no consolation to think that, in many ways, Berlusconi was the forerunner of a new way of conceiving politics that has found in other leaders of the right, from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, archetypes who in many ways have surpassed the master in their capacity to do harm. The sorcerer’s apprentice has conjured up demons that no one seems able to control.
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