Italy

Democratic forces in Berlusconi’s Italy are increasingly beleaguered. More than ever they need our support, not our silence and consent

Until the rise of Silvio Berlusconi in 1994, few would have thought that a major western European country could once again fall under something resembling the spell of fascism. Fifteen years later, Italy is unrecognisable, home to a process of political change that should be watched – and feared – by everyone in Europe. It is a warning of how the fabric of democracy can be progressively undermined from within, and that, far from being external and alien, the seeds of authoritarianism lie within the body politic.

The term fascism is so defined by powerful historical imagery that the phenomenon itself seems to be of historical relevance only; yet Berlusconi is an extremely modern figure, reflecting the worst and most insidious features of contemporary western and, in particular, Italian culture. Nor should our concerns be lessened or diluted by what might be described as the more superficial and comical aspects of Italian culture: non-Italians generally see both Mussolini and Berlusconi, to some degree, as figures of fun and ridicule. Every nation has its specificities.

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The use of fascist symbols, the threat of violence, the demonisation of minorities … hasn’t Italy been here before?

It is now clear that the left’s victory in the Italian general election of 2006 represented no more than a brief pause in the country’s remorseless shift to the right.

One hoped that election might have signalled an end to the degenerative and anti-democratic trends that had accompanied the rise of Silvio Berlusconi over the previous decade. In fact, it represented no such thing.
It is already clear that the third Berlusconi government will be markedly different from its two predecessors, which were primarily about Berlusconi’s desire to use public power to protect his private empire and to change the law in order to prevent legal action being taken against him. He was successful on both counts. Meanwhile the concentration of immense private and public power in the hands of one man signalled a serious corrosion in the fabric of democracy.

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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.

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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.

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Blair’s friend and ally lies in direct line of descent from Mussolini and poses a toxic threat to democracy

We should not be surprised that New Labour has become embroiled in a scandal that involves Silvio Berlusconi. There is something entirely predictable about it. Tony Blair was perfectly happy to embrace Berlusconi, together with the former Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar as an ally at the time of the breach between Europe and the US in the months prior to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. He has seen Berlusconi as a valuable ally in pursuit of his pro-Bush foreign policy. In fact, he has consistently been closer to Berlusconi than to centre-left leaders such as the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. This sense of affinity has even acquired a personal and family dimension, with the Blairs accepting Berlusconi’s hospitality and taking their vacations with the Italian leader at his holiday home.

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Berlusconi is not just another rightwinger; he is a threat to democracy

The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, may have been forced to apologise, albeit belatedly, for his extraordinary attack on Martin Schulz, the German MEP, but it seems likely that the bitter taste will remain to sour the next six months of the Italian presidency. More importantly, this incident could serve as a long overdue wake-up call to Europe’s politicians and opinion-formers about just what kind of political threat Berlusconi represents.

Some have described his suggestion that Schulz should play the part of commandant in a film about Nazi concentration camps as a gaffe by a gaffe-prone politician. This is entirely to miss the point. Just because Berlusconi says things that no other European prime minister would does not mean they are gaffes. They accurately describe the nature of the man and his politics.

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