We turn a blind eye to Berlusconi, but a huge amount is at stake in this weekend’s Italian general election.
With just a few days to go, there is a profoundly discomfiting fact about the Italian general election: Prodi is only three points ahead of Berlusconi. The result remains on a knife edge. I make no apology for returning to the subject of Berlusconi. He is the most dangerous man in Europe and poses a profound threat to democracy in Italy. The attitude displayed towards him by western leaders like Blair and Bush – treating him as a friend and ally – has been nothing short of disgraceful – the word appeasement is buzzing around in my head. While they busily denounce “extremists”, terrorists and “authoritarianism” around the world, they turn a blind eye to the corrosion and degeneration of democracy in one of the historic centres of Europe, not to mention one of the most important countries in the European Union. Berlusconi represents an incipient fascism, a fascism born of the conditions of our age rather than the interwar period. I choose my words carefully, without hyperbole.
In a country resting on universal suffrage, then the corruption of information – through the overwhelming control of the media, especially television, both private and state – is a pre-condition for the debasement of democracy. This is exactly what Berlusconi has achieved. The truth has become fiction, fiction the truth; the two are indistinguishable in Berlusconi’s Italy. Democracies depend on the separation of powers and recognition of and respect for the legitimacy of these various independent sources of power. But Berlusconi has sought quite deliberately to undermine them. He doesn’t just seek to attack them; he seeks to undermine and ridicule them. He calls the judges communists. This is the typical style of a fascist leader, seeking to weaken and undermine those sources of power and legitimacy that lie outside his control.
A fortnight ago, I wrote an article making some of these same points. I got over 120 emails in response. They made deeply depressing reading, not because they were critical of my article. On the contrary, they overwhelmingly came from Italians who thanked me for writing the truth, who said that it was increasingly hard to say these kind of things in Italy, and who displayed a profound pessimism about the future of their country. I cannot remember a similar mood of desperation in any major European democracy in recent times. And yet we happily seem to turn the other cheek, or pretend that Berlusconi is simply a fool, or a knave, or another mega-rich man, or one of those slightly bizarre political figures that Italian politics seems to specialise in from time to time. He might be some of these things as well, though fool he certainly is not, but this is to miss the point entirely. Berlusconi threatens the edifice of Italian democracy.
Let us hope that he is defeated this weekend, but we should be under no illusions that this would bring the matter to a close. Berlusconi has done untold damage to Italian democracy since his emergence as a political leader in 1994. The weak centre left government that replaced him in 1996 failed to provide a serious and viable alternative, while also shamefully failing to legislate over Berlusconi’s “conflict of interests”: that he could, at the same time, be both prime minister and own virtually all of the private television channels as well as a large slice of the print media. As a result, Berlusconi returned to power in 2001 far stronger than before. Exactly the same could happen again. After another period of weak centre left government, Berlusconi could return yet again, in an even stronger position. And Italian democracy could slowly wither on the vine. Europe, are you listening? Do you care? Are you worried? Do you understand the meaning of Berlusconi and what is happening in Italy?