The Hostage-Taker Berlusconi Pushes Italy to Brink
He's to blame for 20 years of standstill in Italy. Now he's leading the nation and the whole of Europe to the brink of disaster. If Silvio Berlusconi succeeds in toppling the government this week, his cynicism will have won.
He cries a lot these days. On Sunday, his 77th birthday, he shed tears after receiving a letter from his children assuring him of their eternal loyalty. Usually he cries about supposed disloyalty and his battle against the "red robes." Whenever Silvio Berlusconi cries, Italy must tremble.
He was in floods of tears 20 years ago. Even under the shower, as a close aide once recounted. "They're going to finish me," he whined. But the mogul always went for broke and hurled himself into the fray to rescue his legally and economically fragile business empire. And he always won.
He plunged Italy into two decades of political turmoil that turned it from a top-tier industrial nation to a crisis-ridden, over-indebted country in desperate need of reforms. Two decades of permanent election campaigning that always focused on the same subject -- for or against Berlusconi. There was never time, and never a political majority, for reforms. As a result, government debts ballooned until they became unmanageable.
Berlusconi's friends are telling Italian newspapers that the four-time prime minister is appalled at the '"politicized judges" in this "half-baked democracy" that want to "finish him off." He's having dreams about being led off in handcuffs while the people of Italy rise up and take to the streets across the country to resist his arrest.
A Convicted Criminal
Berlusconi is an economic criminal whose conviction can no longer be appealed. Italy's highest court sentenced to him to four years in jail which is likely to be commuted to house arrest due to his advanced age and diverse legal factors. He will have to give up his seat in the Senate and stay out of politics for a yet-to-be-determined period. But he doesn't want to retire, so he's going for broke again. He still has an influential TV empire, vast wealth and enough personal vigor. It's hard to believe, but up to 30 percent of Italians would vote for him now, and who knows -- that percentage could increase following an election campaign.
His plan is to topple the government, which depends on seats from his party, and to enforce an early election as soon as possible. That would enable him to avoid the looming eviction from the Senate and, if he wins the election, it would allow him to pass tailormade laws to get him out of his predicament. The current crisis is Berlusconi's only chance to save his political career.
He doesn't have unanimous backing from his party. Many are grumbling, some are openly voicing their disapproval. The question is whether enough of them will really dare to resist him in upcoming votes in parliament. His party -- founded as "Forza Italia" ("Forward Italy"), then renamed "Popolo della Liberta" ("People of Freedom") and now about to assume its old Forza name -- is no ordinary democratic political party. Decisions aren't debated or voted on; instead, Berlusconi, the founder and leader, decides everything from who becomes an MP to who gets to have a career and who becomes a minister. It's a company, in fact. There are no shared decisions. There's just one boss and that's it.
Resist Him at Your Peril
Even if Italy doesn't hold a new election, Berlusconi could still get his way -- he could use the seats of his MPs to stir up new crises each week and wear down the government until it agrees to some kind of amnesty for him. That's all he wants, after all.
He says he'd immediately agree to everything if it was "in the interests of the people," he'd step down if it were "useful for the country." But that's pure cynicism. Berlusconi has "lost all dignity," the arch-conservative newspaper Famiglia Cristiana ("Christian Family") wrote in its latest edition.
One man could put a stop to Berlusconi's game: former comedian Beppe Grillo. His Five Star Movement has more than enough seats to govern with the Social Democrats and their allies, or at least to launch urgently needed reforms ahead of a new election. Without a new electoral law, the next election will probably produce yet another stalemate. But Grillo doesn't want to. He wants a new election, he wants to govern or nothing. Grillo's voters are anti-establishment, they're fundamentally opposed to "them in Rome." He too is profiting politically from the crisis, just like Berlusconi.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta wants to present an austerity and reform program in parliament this week and to link that to a vote of confidence that will determine the near-term fate of the nation.
A vote against reform, wrote 89-year-old author, journalist and politician Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica, would trigger a development that would be "more than a disaster," not just for Italy but for Europe. The collapse of the Italian state, an explosion in public debt and plunging financial markets would ensue.
And Italy would, like Somalia, "be in the hands of two gangs, led by two irresponsible people."