What the election of Silvio Berlusconi represents is the conquest and occupation of the state by private interests

The emergence of Silvio Berlusconi as the dominant political figure in Italy is the single most depressing event in Europe over the last decade. His role as political leader and the country’s most powerful media tycoon have brought into question to what extent Italy can be described as a democracy. True, Berlusconi has been elected via the ballot box, but when he controls all the major private TV channels and has reshaped the state’s channels in his own image, while also owning several newspapers, then the dice are hugely loaded in his favour.

Democracy is not just a matter of an individual casting a vote: it also depends on the ability of the individual voter to access the different positions on offer in a relatively objective and equal way. That has palpably not been the case in Italy since 1994. Democracy depends on a separation of economic and political power. The growth of lobby interests in the United States has significantly weakened that separation. So has the rise of the rich as the main funders of Britain’s two main parties. But the degeneration in these cases is on nothing like the same scale as Italy.

One is reminded in the Italian case of how recent – and fragile – the democratic system still is. Between the wars, it fell victim to the rise of Mussolini and the fascists. Even after 1945, the political system was a peculiar beast: in effect, half-democratic and half-authoritarian, with only the Christian Democrats allowed to govern, and the left permanently excluded from government. Berlusconi lies in a tradition where democracy has always had what might be described as a contingent, even shadowy existence. Nothing is ever quite as it seems: whether it is the role of the mafia, the security services, or, even during the cold war, western intelligence. (Remember the murder of Aldo Moro, or Roberto Calvi, or the bombing of Bologna station: decades on, we remain none the wiser about who was really responsible.)

Berlusconi is a product of this tradition – he bears some of the characteristics of Mussolini – but he is also distinctive, palpably a man of his time, even if he reflects its very worst aspects. Essentially, what Berlusconi represents is the conquest and occupation of the state by private interests. It is the underlying weakness and lack of legitimacy of the Italian state in the popular mind that makes this possible.

Italians support Berlusconi not despite but because he uses the state for his own personal ends. He sees the state in same way as many Italians view it: as something to be used and manipulated for their own private interests. Over a century after unification, Italy has failed to create a state that the people regard as legitimate and representative. Or, to put it another way, the Italian state is neither a rogue state, nor a failed state, but a dysfunctional state.

It was impossible for the post-war system to create a legitimate state because it was bifurcated between left and right. But the end of the cold war, alas, has failed to offer any solution to this ongoing crisis of the Italian polity. On the contrary, the democratic system has been the subject of a far more serious atrophy, corrosion and degeneration.

Meanwhile, the country, whoever is in power, now seems incapable of economic growth and singularly unable to tackle any of its increasingly serious problems. Berlusconi, in the light of his two previous terms, is incapable of resolving the crisis. The left appears too weak, both politically and electorally. How long will this impasse continue? And what might happen next? One fears for Italy’s future.